Hawai’i welcomes familiar face in Nakanishi, HPU for Sunday clash

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED DEC 8, 2023

HONOLULU — The Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors will look to continue a strong start to the season on Sunday, suiting up against Division II Hawai’i Pacific University for just the second game of December for UH. The ‘Bows opened the month with season-high 95 points in a victory over Central Arkansas on December 3, seeing an entire week to recover and prepare for the Sharks. 

The focus, as always for Eran Ganot’s Hawai’i teams, was “UH first” to begin the week as the Rainbow Warriors looked back at film to correct mistakes from the past weekend. Senior captain Bernardo de Silva admitted on Wednesday that the ‘Bows hadn’t started to look towards their fellow Mānoa basketball residents, aiming first to clean up those previously-mentioned errors from the matchup with UCA. 

That didn’t mean that Hawai’i wouldn’t be pouring resources into that preparation for the rest of the week or that the ‘Bows were underestimating the Sharks, who enter Sunday’s matchup with a five-game winning streak. In fact, Ganot mentioned multiple times during his Wednesday media availability the respect that the program has for former assistant coach Jesse Nakanishi, who now heads the Sharks after serving as the associate head coach for the past two seasons, and the rest of his staff for the work they put in. 

“[Nakanishi]’s done a great job, he’s going to do a great job, all these coaches in Hawai’i are doing a great job,” Ganot said of his former understudy. “You’re always sad to see [former assistant coaches] go but you root for them like crazy and you’re not surprised by their success.” 

In talking about Nakanishi, the longtime UH coach shared some of the things that makes the first-year college head coach a quality hire already paying off. 

“He’s a smart coach, hard worker… he studies the game and is going to find what’s best for his current team to be successful and they’ve done a great job with that,” Ganot added. “This is a big team… there’s a reason they’ve won five in a row.” 

With that size, the Sharks enter SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center in search of the program’s second-ever win over the ‘Bows. In order for the Rainbow Warriors to continue their winning ways, here are a few keys for UH to earn the team’s seventh win in eight games to start the year. 

1. Attack HPU’s guards early. 

HPU’s Dominique “Diggy” Winbush and Melo Sanchez are a pair of talented offensive players each tasked with creating a heavy dose of the off-the-dribble offense for the Sharks while a true scorer off the bounce from the bench unit hasn’t appeared yet. While Nakanishi employs a nine-man rotation in most games, Sanchez leads the team by playing over 36 minutes per contest. Winbush follows behind closely with 28 minutes of action per night, leaving 16 minutes unaccounted for per game for the bench to fill in the blanks. 

Hawai’i has the guards to make life difficult for the starting backcourt of the Sharks on the defensive end of the court with all-Big West preseason selection JoVon McClanahan and sharp-shooting lefty Noel Coleman lead the charge with a desire to get downhill in transition. Should the two guards, combined with the efforts of reserves Juan Munoz and Tom Beattie, continue a relentless desire to get to the rim against any defender, it could be a long night of looking for answers through foul trouble for the visitors from Division II. 

2. Make the extra pass, especially if there’s any doubt in the paint. 

While UH is able to boast a size advantage for the most part, HPU’s 7-foot-4 center Matthew Van Komen will enter the matchup as the tallest player on either roster. The former St. Mary’s center puts the length to work as well, averaging three blocks per game, good for top-five nationally in Division 2 men’s basketball. 

It feels like Van Komen has more blocks than that as well due to his ability to impact and alter shots without even touching them. While Hawai’i has finished well overall this season, Van Komen will be the tallest player UH has faced off against this season by three inches. If McClanahan and company can get a step and force help from HPU, an extra pass or two will not only result in an open look but can limit Van Komen’s chances to alter the game. 

(Additionally, there’s no reason for Hawai’i not to look for extra three-point opportunities while employing one of the better, more consistently accurate from range teams in recent program memory. Let them fly and continue being a modern offense to compliment the defense.)

3. Win the bench minutes handily. 

Both teams enjoy quality defense when going to their bench units, but Hawai’i’s offensive potential is tantalizing. Munoz showed out against Central Arkansas with a season-high 19 points on 5/5 shooting from 3-point territory in the first half while dropping three dimes for good measure. Sophomore center Mor Seck has continued to rapidly develop on both ends of the floor while adding strength to his 7-foot-1 frame. True freshman Tom Beattie snatched a rotation spot early in the preseason and hasn’t looked back since, only upping his playing time as the season progresses. The list goes on. 

HPU has not been so lucky, struggling to get much offensive production out of the bench. Just once this season has a Sharks’ reserve had 10 or more points in Ethan Taafe, coming in the opening game of the year, a loss at Alaska Anchorage. If the ‘Bows can win the bench minutes by continuing the Sharks’ offensive struggles and building on successes of their own, Hawai’i will move to 7-1 with a date against Nevada on December 17 as the next test.