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First Look: UH Men’s Hoops

By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.

The University of Hawaii men’s basketball team held a dress rehearsal of sorts last night, beating the Chaminade Silverswords in a preseason exhibition contest, 72-60. The Rainbow Warriors officially open their regular season schedule a week from tomorrow, Nov. 10, with a home game against UH-Hilo.

Here’s a quick primer of the 2020-21 season:

LAST SEASON IN REVIEW: UH went 11-10 in the COVID-abbreviated 2020-21 campaign, including 9-9 in the Big West Conference. They were bounced from the Big West Tournament by UC Riverside, 62-52. Hawaii has not won a first-round Big West Tournament game since 2016.

WHO’S GONE: Following the growing trend in college sports, the Rainbow Warriors were hit hard by player defections at the end of last season. The team’s leading scorer, guard Justin Webster, is now a UNLV Rebel. Center-forward James Jean-Marie is now at Portland State. Forward Casdon Jardine and guard Biwali Bayles both left the program to play professionally. Reserve forward Justin Hensley also entered the NCAA transfer portal and homegrown guard Kameron Ng is now on the UH-Hilo roster. In all, Hawaii lost 63% of their scoring and 56% of their rebounding from last season.

There were departures within the coaching staff, as well: Assistant coach Chris Gerlufsen from the program to become an associate head coach at San Francisco, and fellow assistant Jabari Trotter returned to his alma mater, Dartmouth, to serve as an assistant coach. Also, Director of Basketball Operations Jesse Nakanishi announced his departure in July and has rejoined the coaching staff at HPU.

NEW FACES: Now in his seventh season, UH head coach Eran Ganot needed to replenish his roster and his coaching staff, and he did just that. The influx of talent includes three Division I transfers, a junior college standout and a promising freshman. The hope is that Texas transfer Kamaka Hepa, a 6’10 junior forward who was a Rivals Top 50 recruit in high school, will blossom as a Rainbow Warrior, perhaps taking a similar path as former Noah Allen, a seldom-used player at UCLA who became a First-Team All-Big West selection at UH. Jerome Desrosiers is a 6’7 senior transfer who played the last three seasons at Princeton. (Desrosiers had 10 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists in a Tigers victory over UH in the 2017 Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.) Juan Munoz is a 6’1 senior sharpshooter who led Longwood University in scoring and assists last season. Another backcourt addition is 6’1 shooting guard Amoro Lado, a two-time Idaho State Player of the Year who helped College of Southern Idaho earn a No. 3 seed in the NJCAA National Tournament. Rounding out the newcomers is 6’8 freshman forward Brock Heffner, a Second-Team All-State selection as a senior for Grafton High School in Wisconsin.

And then there are two “new faces” who are actually not really new. 6’6 senior forward Samuta Avea, Hawaii’s second-leading scorer in the 2019-20 season returns to the lineup after opting out of last season. And 6’9 forward-center Bernardo Da Silva is back after missing most of last season with an injury.

Brad Davidson has joined the coaching staff as the team’s assistant coach and offensive coordinator. He has extensive coaching experience in his native Australia and most recently served as an assistant at South Dakota. Former Rainbow Warrior Mike Thomas, a starter on Hawaii’s 2016 NCAA Tournament team, has returned to Manoa to serve as an assistant coach.

THE SCHEDULE: As usual, Hawaii opens the season with the annual Outrigger Rainbow Classic. This year’s field includes Hilo (10-2 last season) Pacific (9-9) and Northern Colorado (11-11). Then the Warriors head to Las Vegas to participate in the Las Vegas Classic. They’ll play Illinois-Chicago (9-13) in the first round, then either San Diego (3-11) or South Alabama (17-11). Th ‘Bows stay on the road to,play Santa Clara (12-8) before returning to Honolulu to host HPU (3-9). UH will host Vanderbilt (9-16) on the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic. This year’s field also includes Stanford (14-13), BYU (20-7), Liberty (23-6), Wyoming (14-11), Northern Iowa (10-15) and South Florida (9-13).

Hawaii’s 20-game Big West schedule starts on Dec. 29 with a home game against UC Davis. The Big West Tournament is set for March 8-12 at the 6,000-seat Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada.

PROJECTED STARTERS: Avea and Hepa seem like locks to start at the two forward positions, with Desrosiers seeing plenty of action at the 4 spot. Seven-foot junior Mate Colina has the inside track at center, although Da Silva should get his share of minutes and add a different dimension in the front court. The long-armed Brazilian has added a medium-range jumper to his arsenal. (Colina and Da Silva combined for 30 points and 14 boards against the Silverswords last night.) Returning freshman Beon Riley and walk-on Zoar Nedd may also get into the rotation.

A big key for the backcourt is the anticipated improvement of guards Noel Coleman, JoVon McClanahan and Junior Madut. The 6’1 Coleman has bulked up and improved his explosiveness, and showed it last night against Chaminade. McClanahan showed flashes last season, and he should play a bigger role with a full season under his belt. Madut averaged 10.5 points per contest last season and is one of the more dynamic talents on the roster. He just needs to be more consistent. Munoz will add long-range shooting and playmaking to the guard position, filling the role previously played by Webster. Expect Madut to start at the shooting guard position, and Munoz or McClanahan to get the first shot at Manning the point. In any event, Hawaii will likely utilize three-guard sets quite often during the season.

OUTLOOK: At the very least, this year’s edition of the Rainbow Warriors will be fun to watch. Ganot has a lot of pieces to mix and match – the playing rotation could conceivably go 12 deep, although it will likely tighten as the conference season goes on. With a roster full of players who can play a number of positions, this team has depth, versatility and (thanks to the three D-1 transfers plus the return of Avea) experience. If everyone can stay healthy and the team’s chemistry is as good as Ganot expects, a 20-win season and Top Four finish in the Big West isn’t out of the question. In the end, however, it all comes down to the conference tournament.

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