To repeat sweep, Vulcans’ degree of difficulty will increase at Hawaii Pacific

  • KELSEY WALLING UH-Hilo forward Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones avoided the crunch against Hawaii Pacific's David Rowlands, left, and Colton Martin in January as the Vuls beat the Sharks twice to open the season.

Now comes the hard part for the UH-Hilo men’s basketball team, which heads to Hawaii Pacific’s Shark Tank for a repeat series.

Only this time, the two-game PacWest pod series is at St. Francis’ old gym in Honolulu, which the Sharks call home after the Saints closed the doors to their school.

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The games are 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and will be streamed live on UHH’s website.

The Vulcans (3-1) sit in first place after a sweep of the Sharks (0-2) and a split against Chaminade (1-1).

David Rowlands, a senior guard, is the key to HPU’s attack. The Sharks’ bread-and-butter is Rowlands coming off a screen set by 6-foot-11 center Chidozie Ndu.

“Rowlands is shifty. He’s a tough cover because he can make any shot off the bounce,” UHH coach Kaniela Aiona said. “Our ball-screen defense is a work in progress, and it will need to be solid when he’s handling the ball.”

In the two wins over HPU, every time the 5-11 Rowlands went around a screen the Vuls chased him over the top and the little Shark got a shot off.

Here’s the good news for UHH. Rowlands only goes to his right, which makes him a one-direction dribbler.

Also, Rowlands and Ndu aren’t exactly Stockton and Malone, masters of the pick-and-roll. Ndu (4.0 points per game) isn’t much of a scorer. He hasn’t shown an ability to hit an elbow jumper or roll to the rim off passes from Rowlands.

But who knows? Maybe under the cover of anonymity, they watched YouTube videos of Stockton and Malone and added the pick-and-roll to their game.

More than likely, the Sharks will hike to the ball to junior guard Rodney Hounshell, who’ll dribble penetrate with attacks to the rim. He scored 12 and 23 points against UHH.

One Vulcan who’s been struggling, at least offensively, has been guard Jordan Graves, who’s averaging 6.0 points per game and has made 1 of 17 from 3-point range. But Graves is a two-way threat. Shooting is sometimes a tricky thing. Sometimes you’re hot, sometimes the ball bounces off the rim too many times.

Defense is one area where there should be no dropoff. That’s where Graves takes pride in, his defense, and Aiona sees that.

“Jordan has given us a really good defensive presence, and we need him to continue to stick to our opponent’s primary wing scorer,” Aiona said.

Through four games, the minutes have been quite balanced between starter Jalen Thompson (14.8 minutes per game) and bench guys Steven Hubbell (22.8 mpg) and Ethan Jetter (18.8 mpg).

No player, who’s usually a star at a junior college or high school, signs with UHH thinking he’ll be on the bench.

But Aiona has to be tactful while getting guys to buy in, one critical but underrated part of coaching.

This is where James Harden would check out and fly off to Las Vegas.

“Our team value we emphasized last week was Ha’aha’a, humility,” he said. “That will be key to success this weekend against HPU. We are focused on getting better in all areas at each practice. Lots of film work this week.

“We aren’t shooting the ball at the level we expect to. Some of that is a function of the experience required in our flowing motion offense.”

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In Aiona’s mind, there’s always room for improvement, especially when there’s complete buy-in from the players, which leads to the team chemistry champions carry in their back pockets.

“We are optimistic that with more game experience that will work itself out,” he said. “It’s early in the pod schedule, and we have a lot to prove, so we have to stay humble and hungry.”