UHH men’s basketball preview: Aiona starts men’s tenure with an aloha slate

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald A UH-Hilo men’s basketball returning cast that includes Jordan Graves (No. 2) and Steven Hubbell (No. 0), is bolstered by newcomers such as Ethan Jetter, left, Darren Williams, center, and Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones.

UH-Hilo will play Hawaii Pacific and Chaminade so many times it will become all too familiar like an episode of “Cheers,” where everybody knows your name and your game, too.

That’s the theme of this PacWest pod season in the new coronavirus era, where safety is the most important thing and the biggest obstacle. The Vulcans, Sharks, and Silverswords need to remain disciplined, avoid public gatherings, wear a mask, maintain social distancing and follow all the state protocols to make their new normal work.

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On Saturday, when the Sharks visited UHH Gym, it marked the coaching debut of Kaniela Aiona, who’s following the same blueprint he used to turn Menlo College into an NAIA force. It all starts with recruiting, and for a small school like UHH or Menlo, it’s vitally important to discover hidden gems who will become difference-makers.

Aiona found undersized juco transfer point guard Darren Williams and overlooked New Zealand freshman Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones, a well-skilled Swiss Army knife, through coaching contacts. They’ll join three returning players, center Sasa Vuksanovic and guards Jordan Graves and Jalen Thompson, with institutional knowledge in a lineup still looking to solidify itself.

All five of those players have winning backgrounds. At Chaffey College, Williams won a league title; Tait-Jones played on a club team that captured a league title; at Sheridan College (Wyo.), Vuksanovic advanced to the national juco tournament; same thing with Graves at Santa Rosa College (Calif.); and Thompson’s Oregon high school was an annual contender for the state title.

Yet, the Vulcans (12-14 last season) have had nine straight losing seasons, no surprise to anyone who follows All-PacWest awards. The talent gap has been lopsided. In the last nine years, Chaminade has had eight first-team picks, the Sharks have had four and Vuls just one.

But it wasn’t just the talent disparity. It was the simple basic fundamental things, too, stuff you learn as a kid growing up at the Vulcans Basketball School.

Too often the Vulcans couldn’t shake a bad habit of beating themselves or surrendering easy points. An opposing player would grab a rebound and dribble the length of the floor for an uncontested layup all the while fans would scream, “Stop the ball.”

Fans won’t be allowed into UHH Gym during this pandemic season. So order a game on the hiloathletics.com website, grab a Subway sandwich and a Pepsi and enjoy seeing something new.

Even the 2018-19 team, probably the most talented in the last nine years, couldn’t stop the losing skid. That squad featured senior transfers Larry Bush from UNLV, James Griffin from West Liberty (West Virginia), and Denham Brooke from BYU-Hawaii, plus Kupaa Harrison, Graves, Thompson and Tom Power, then a freshman from New Zealand. That team finished 12-14, losing four of its last five games.

Will this year’s UHH edition be any different?

Recruiting and culture go hand in hand. Yes, Alabama keeps winning national titles with five-star football recruits. But the Tide play hard, play together and play smart. They don’t get there by accident. They understand what it takes to win.

Aiona brought his aloha culture to Menlo, and it worked. Now, he’s bringing it back home.

“Everyone does it their own way,” he said. “A big part of it is staying true to yourself. What’s important to me is knowing how the team operates, the communication and functioning together as a unit. All our decisions start with that. Our decisions affect the way we operate together.”

The Vuls plan to play a four-in, one-out style of ball, a motion offense looking to run in transition, shoot and share the ball. For reference, it’s how the Golden State Warriors used to play before all the dysfunction set in.

Defensively, they’ll plan man, zone, and press and have two ball hawks in guards Williams and Graves to terrorize opposing point guards. They can share point guard duties and personal fouls, too. If one gets into foul trouble, the other can spearhead the defensive charge.

“Offensively, it’s less important what you do than how you do it,” Aiona said. “The focus is for our guys to learn to play together. Every team has its own strengths and weaknesses. It takes a lot of time to unlock it. For us, we want our guys to play together and share the ball. You want five guys working together to create a high-percentage shot.

“Defensively, we’ve got a unique team, more versatility than I’ve had in the past. We’re not a big team or have a ton of size. We’ll have to be very competitive, gang rebound and be disruptive on the defensive end.”

What’s it going to be like seeing the Sharks and the Silverswords again and again?

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“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Aiona said. “It’s a weird dynamic playing so many games against the same teams. It’ll be a chess match when you play so many times. It’s a unique adjustment year. I’m looking forward to playing HPU and Chaminade as many times as we can.”

Well, cheers to that.

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