Like any new coach, GE Coleman arrived at UH-Hilo prior to the 2013-14 season with winning expectations, a system in place and ready to roll.
Like many coaches along the way, Coleman has learned to manage his outlook, tweak his style and learn to play the hand that’s been dealt to him.
He enters his seventh season still looking for his first winning campaign, but if any external noise comes his way because of his record, Coleman can’t hear it.
“My internal pressure is 10 times whatever that of anybody else could be,” he said. “It’s been that way my entire life. I’ve been a big-time competitor and have won, and that’s what I want the program to be here.
“I can only control what is here right now.”
What’s on hand, for the second consecutive season, is a roster-ready to play Coleman’s preferred pace.
In a word: fast.
In a few words: frantic, up-tempo, full-court, in-your-face press defense.
It’s a style that’s always suited Coleman, and – perhaps more importantly – it’s a style that suits the Vulcans, he says.
Coleman wasn’t lied to way back when he was told the isolated job he was taking was like none other in NCAA basketball. For starters, UHH is the only school in the country where a team has to hop on a plane for every road game.
“I’ve always enjoyed that,” he said of an uptempo style, “and there are years we haven’t been able to do it, but I think we have a unique situation and location, and I think you have to find something a little different to win compared to other places.”
Last season, the Vulcans nearly turned the corner, finishing 12-14, and they were in the Pacific West Conference playoff race until the final day of the regular season.
The snapshot of the season might have come in a resounding road win at Point Loma, which went on to finish as the national runner-up in Division II. Of course, also as memorable were three home games in which UHH let big leads slip away.
“Last year was very refreshing because we had a great group of kids, and I really wanted them to get over the hump because they deserved it,” Coleman said.
It’s early, but he’s well on his way to feeling the same about this year’s team.
“It’s great,” junior transfer Sasa Vuksanovic, formerly of Sheridan College, said of the team’s bond. “Coach does a great job bringing everybody together.
“It’s way better than it was last year (for me) at Sheridan.”
Not surprisingly, Coleman’s best team to date was close-knit and had a penchant for forcing turnovers, finishing among the nation’s leaders.
“You’re always learning and adjusting, but I think last year’s team is how I’ve always wanted to play,” he said. “We were finally athletic enough to do that.
“Being that close to making the postseason, something that UHH has never done, I think it’s motivated them to get over the hump this year.”
Larry Bush will be missed because of his on-the-ball defense, but there are an ample amount of athletic guard options between Jordan Graves, Damani Whitlock and Elisha Duplechan as well as forward Kupaa Harrison, who was among the PacWest leaders in steals last season.
Also departing was James Sheridan, a fellow 15-point-a-game-scorer like Bush. Combined, they nearly averaged 42 percent of the last year’s offensive production.
“How are we going to fill the gap?” Coleman said. “I don’t know that we’re going to get two guys to score they way they did. We’re hoping everybody can step up.”
For the third consecutive season, he’s joined on the bench by Aukai Wong, a Vulcans alum and a former Hilo High standout who’s able to bump elbows with the players during practice.
“Aukai is great with the players, and he has a great basketball mind,” Coleman said. “It’s good to have somebody not only as assistant, but he’s really become one of my close friends, and it’s a blessing to have him as part of the program.”
Friends help friends break postseason droughts, but it won’t be easy in the competitive PacWest.
‘There are challenges (here),” Coleman said, “but I think as a competitor you want to embrace those challenges.
“There are challenges everywhere, but they are compounded because the PacWest might be the toughest Division II conference in the country. Every year, there is no room for air.”
When he was hired, that landscape may have made Coleman cringe.
These days, he wouldn’t want it any other way.