HPU looking for second-ever win against ‘Bows in Sunday matchup

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED DEC 7, 2023

HONOLULU — Old friends, new energy, and a pair of O’ahu-based college basketball teams off to strong starts to their 2023-24 seasons. 

The Hawai’i Pacific University men’s basketball team, now under the leadership of longtime high school coach and former UH assistant Jesse Nakanishi, will roll down the hill from the “Shark Tank” to the other show in Mānoa for a date with the 6-1 Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors this Sunday. The Sharks are currently riding the high of a 5-game winning streak after dropping the first two contests of the season, most recently taking down Fresno Pacific in a tightly-contested home win on Monday. 

While the game counts as just an exhibition for the Division II program, coaches and players alike are treating the matchup as anything but such. 

“Definitely not treating it as an exhibition,” Nakanishi said on Thursday. “We play all games the same way and we’re going to try and put our best foot forward to win this thing and compete at a high level.” 

The Sharks have changed up routine for practice a bit ahead of the matchup, switching to slightly shorter, more intense practices to increase efficiency in preparation for Sunday’s test. To do so, the coaching staff has also keyed in on player recovery and rest in time away from the court this week. 

Ahead of the “Battle for O’ahu,” here are three keys for HPU should the 5-2 Sharks want to come up with the program’s 2nd ever victory over its D1 counterpart and the first since the flip of the century. 


 

1. Control the painted area. 

HPU presents a different challenge than most Division II programs, employing a more-than-healthy sized front court with 7-foot-4 graduate transfer Matthew Van Komen patrolling the paint and the springy 6-foot-7 Slovenian Maj Dusanic right next to him. 

The Sharks don’t get much smaller when going to the bench, either. Backing up Van Komen is 6-foot-11 Tucker Pellicci, who has continued to provide quality minutes off the pine for Nakanishi and staff to allow the team to steal minutes of rest at a time for “Mount Van Komen” each half without significant drop-off. ETSU transfer Charlie Weber, who stands at 6-foot-9 and played a significant amount of center during his time on the mainland, made his debut on December 2 after missing HPU’s first five contests due to injury and enjoyed a hot-shooting 2nd half against Fresno Pacific by drilling deep two after deep two. 

With options inside, HPU has felt that the team’s strength lies with the post play. That hasn’t necessarily been the case for the Sharks on offense, seeing the top two scorers for the year play guard in Diggy Winbush and Melo Sanchez (more on him later). 

Defensively? That’s been an entirely different story. 

The Sharks are tied for 19th nationally in Division 2, averaging five blocks per contest across seven games. That number doesn’t include the impact that the shot blockers employed by HPU have on the multitude of attempts coming near and at the rim. It will be vital that the strong paint defense continues against a Hawai’i team that relentlessly attacks the lane with guards and has a quality big man in Bernardo de Silva. 

2. Get Melo Sanchez going once again. 

Told you we’d get back to him. 

The sophomore guard leads HPU in points per contest, putting in around 17 points per game for the Sharks. That number has rapidly dipped over the previous two outings as the 6-foot-4 guard was held to just seven points against each of Westmont and Fresno Pacific. Before then, the San Diego-native had scored 15 or more points in four of five appearances to begin the year, including a season-best 32 points at home against Slippery Rock that pushed his per-game average to 20.8 points in each outing. 

Opponents have keyed in on the guard at times this season, allowing others to get buckets of their own to help lead HPU to victory (most recently seeing Winbush explode for 27 points versus Westmont and earn PacWest player of the week honors). When it comes to matching up against the ‘Bows, however, Hawai’i Pacific will need the team’s best scorer to show up in the brightest lights yet this year. Sanchez had just nine points last season as a true freshman against UH up in Laie as he fouled out in 21 minutes and took just five total shots. 

The formula this time around needs to look much different for HPU and that means feeding Melo and letting the sophomore guard feast. It’s a tough ask against a UH program with many strong perimeter defenders but can serve as an excellent measuring stick for the guard and team to see where they are and where they need to get to as the schedule rolls along.

3. Don’t let the game slip away in bench minutes. 

One of the biggest concerns and toughest parts of games this season for HPU has been during the mainly-bench minutes. 

Now, it’s not because of a lack of quality players or poor play. There just hasn’t been a true scorer that has emerged with the second unit quite yet for HPU through seven games. Just once through those seven outings has there been a double-digit performance off the bench for HPU, coming in the season-opening loss at Alaska Fairbanks when Ethan Taafe finished with 10 points. 

Taafe has enjoyed a nice start to his second season at HPU, but the true piece to keep an eye out for is the aforementioned Weber. The 6-foot-9 forward expects to continue ramping up his minutes and play a key role for the Sharks as he moves out of the post and has shown off some wing ability as well. If the Division I transfer continues to work his sea-legs under him, Nakanishi and staff have an intriguing scoring piece to boost the second unit. 

It’s going to be important for HPU to compete in the bench minutes for both sides. Each team goes about nine players deep in the rotation but UH’s bench unit has been an exciting one that has led to big leads at times with young talents like Tom Beattie and Mor Seck. 

Should HPU pull off an upset, look back at how the bench units performed versus one another and if Weber is able to shake off a ton of the rust from the past two years off.