UH-Hilo men’s basketballl feels up to tests

  • UH-Manoa photo New Zealand freshman Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones likely will have a spot in the starting lineup Jan. 16 when UH-Hilo opens its Pacific West Conference season at home against Hawaii Pacific.

The UH-Hilo men’s basketball team is ready to hit the floor in the new era of the coronavirus pandemic, playing a shortened PacWest season against Hawaii Pacific and Chaminade with strict protocols to hopefully keep everyone safe.

The 12-game schedule starts next Saturday at UHH Gym, where fans won’t be allowed. There are just two trips to Oahu in the best bubble environment possible for the Vulcans, who had the good fortune of scouting the Sharks when they played UH-Manoa.

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Of course, HPU also saw the Rainbow Warriors thump the Vulcans eight days later. That’s the thing about playing an opponent six times: You’ll know each other quite well. Stopping or limiting what an opponent does best is the key.

But the biggest issue is discipline. All it takes is for one player to catch the virus, infect the team, and a cluster will collapse the season.

UHH gets tested once a week during a practice-only week and three times during a game week. First-year coach Kaniela Aiona pointed out his team was tested four times during the UH-Manoa week. Sighs of relief were produced when everyone came back negative.

“I trust everybody is doing their part,” point guard Darren Williams said during UHH’s media day. “We’re sticking to state protocols, and we control what we can control.”

He’s a good example of how things can work. Williams is from Rancho, Cucamonga, Calif., and went home for the holidays and returned home healthy.

Williams got a chance to spend time with family and draw inspiration and a reminder to stick to business from his older sibling Naoje, who also played hoops at Rancho Cucamonga High.

“She definitely straightened me out a little bit when I was younger,” he said. “I was the typical annoying little brother. I used to go watch all her games then stay and watch the boys team after.”

Naoje set a good example. She concentrated on school, got a bachelor’s degree from Cal State San Bernardino, and a Masters from the University of Redlands. She’s going to be a school counselor.

“She’s definitely one of my biggest supporters,” Williams said. “Whenever fans are allowed back in the stands, you’ll hear her voice.”

That won’t happen until at least 2022, and if history is followed the Vuls will begin an upward trend in winning. Aiona’s first year at Menlo college produced a 10-19 record. He went 10-18 his second year and 20-11 with a conference tournament appearance in his third season.

UHH’s lineup is still written in pencil but Williams, returnees Jordan Graves, Sasa Vuksanovic, and Jalen Thompson and New Zealand freshman Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones will likely start.

In the 89-66 loss to the Rainbow Warriors, the Vulcans showed what they do best or what they like to do. They run the floor and jack up 3-pointers. The accuracy was off with 4-of-20 shooting.

But on a bright note, Tait-Jones showed smooth inside moves with 7 of 12 shooting for 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Vuksanovic, who can shoot with both hands, added 14 points in 23 minutes.

The Vulcans have had moderate success against the Sharks with a 10-11 record. They’ve struggled against the Silverswords, who own a commanding 16-4 lifetime record and historically have always recruited better than the Vuls and Sharks.

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Fortunately for UHH, Chaminade graduated forward Tyler Cartaino, a two-time All-PacWest first-teamer, and its second-best player, guard Kendall Small.

Maybe UHH’s road back to glory (the last winning record was 16-11 in 2010-11) begins a little sooner but no less complicated in the coronavirus era.

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