Hometown hire: Kaniela Aiona takes helm of UHH hoops; plans to spread ‘em out and shoot, grab rebounds – and most of all recruit

  • Kaniela Aiona's Menlo squad went 19-11 this past year and finished second in the Golden State Athletic Conference. They qualified for the 2019-20 NAIA national tournament that was ultimately canceled because of COVID-19.

It’s the classic tale of local boy makes good for Kaniela Aiona, a 2001 Honokaa graduate, who was hired as the University of Hawaii at Hilo men’s coach on Sunday.

Aiona, 37, has spent the past five seasons as the head coach at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., transforming a 3-23 team into a 20-11 record, in 2017-18, in three seasons.

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He replaces GE Coleman whose contract was not renewed after seven straight losing seasons.

Aiona hit all the right notes, expressing his appreciation to the hiring committee, the university’s brass (UHH chancellor Bonnie Irwin, athletic director Pat Guillen and UH-Manoa president David Lassner), and his former Oaks colleagues.

“Kaniela has proven to be an excellent recruiter, teacher of the game and life skills mentor,” Guillen said in a press release. “Most recently his five-year run at Menlo College as the head coach has been nothing short of impressive. He places a high-priority in student-athlete experience built on high academic achievement, athletic excellence and teaching a team culture of gratitude, service and Aloha. He now comes home with his wife Kelly to lead a program he grew up idolizing while attending our games and Vulcan basketball camps as a kid. I know our community will be just as excited as I am in bringing Kaniela and his ohana back home to the Big Island to work together and lead our men’s basketball team back to national prominence.”

UHH’s last postseason appearance was in 2004-05 with a 25-4 record under former coach Jeff Law.

Aiona has deep ties to the Vulcans. He used to attend Vulcan camps as a youngster. His parents, Tommy and Micci, met at UHH and his brothers, Kamaki and Kamaui, are UHH alumni.

Aiona is a straight shooter who sees things coming from a mile away.

The main question is can he recruit?

During Coleman’s seven-year tenure, he had one player (Salim Gloyd in 2015-16), make the All-PacWest first team and four land on the second team.

Coleman could obviously recruit. But he just couldn’t get enough impact players or a collection of good players, at the same time, who played together on offense and defense.

It’s true that one recruiting diamond can change the trajectory of a program.

Consider the case of former UHH volleyball coach Gene Krieger, whose team was 9-18 in 2017. He landed Bria Beale, from Division I UC Irvine, and the next year the Vulcans went 21-7. In 2019 under Chris Leonard, they went 23-8 and qualified for the West Regional, their first postseason trip since 2011.

“It starts with recruiting and culture, making sure we have the right fit at UHH,” Aiona said.

Before Menlo, he was an assistant at Saint Leo University in Tampa, Florida (2013-15), Benedictine University in Chicago (2011-13), Lake Forest College in Chicago (2008-10), Central Methodist in Fayette, Missouri (2006-08) and Webster University (St. Louis).

Aiona said he’s built up enough contacts on the junior college level and the AAU circuit and will target UHH’s immediate needs once he talks to the assistant coaches, including Aukai Wong.

At Menlo, his offense was based on a four- or five-out motion attack. His Oaks led the country in 3-point shooting.

“We like to space the floor and shoot the basketball,” he said. “We want our team to be very unselfish. My philosophy is to have five guys working together.”

But he’ll probably have a lot of work to do once he arrives at UHH. His start date is June 1.

The Vulcans were last in the conference in 3-point shooting at 31 percent.

Another constant wart for the Vuls has been their rebounding or lack of it. They are perennially in the lower half of the conference in grabbing boards.

The Oaks played a version of Virginia’s pack-line defense, which is basically a sagging man defense, designed to prevent dribble penetration.

“That has to be a point of emphasis,” Aiona said. “That goes back to starting with recruiting. We have to make sure we have the right athletes to help us in that area. If you get defensive rebounds, you’ll win games.”

Before he left, Coleman gifted the Vuls with a pair of freshmen recruits in Waiakea’s Kiai Apele, a fundamentally sound ball distributor, and 6-3 guard Telryn Villa, who averaged 20 points per game at his West Virginia high school.

Unlike Coleman, who was hired by former UHH AD Dexter Irwin, Aiona has head coaching experience.

“The one thing you learn as a head coach is that every decision stops on your desk,” he said. “You have to be adaptable and straight forward with your players. Any new job is a challenge, learning the lay of the land. It’s a process. You want to improve everything you have to do as a basketball coach, teacher, mentor and develop the players. You want to improve the process every single year.”

Aiona and his wife Kelly have a son and are expecting a daughter in July.

With the coronavirus pandemic ongoing and his wife’s pregnancy, Aiona is taking precaution on his journey back home.

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Until then, he can’t wait to get back in the gym and reunite with old, familiar faces.

“I can’t wait to see my coach Cheyenne Meyer in the gym,” he said. “I know he’ll be watching and giving me advice. That’s the one thing when I get back home. I have so many people I played with or know in the basketball community. I’m so excited. I can’t wait to get back in the gym with them and have a face to face with a lot of people and revisit.”

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