The names are familiar enough.
Their identities? That’s another matter. Just about every team in this year’s OC-16/HHSAA Boys Basketball Division I State Championships has undergone a transformation (or two or three) since the start of preseason. If this boys basketball season was a human, it would be a cross between Al Pacino’s “Sonny” in “Dog Day Afternoon” and Sly Stallone as Balboa in “Rocky”. Maybe.
The OIA started out with few surprises. Leilehua was the best in the West. Kalaheo was young, spirited and skilled despite losing key players from its 2015 championship team. Kaiser returned a mass nucleus of talent and size. Kaiser took the mantle early, rode its way to the top, losing only one time with its best player sidelined (elbow injury). With the league title on the line, it wasn’t Leilehua that stepped into a spoiler role. It was Kalaheo, fully loaded with Kekai Smith back to his pre-injury self, that routed Kaiser by 20 to defend its OIA title.
The ILH? Has there ever been a more chaotic battle royal by EVERY team in Division I? Punahou dominated early, owning the No. 1 ranking through much of preseason despite one of the youngest rosters in the state, then lost four of its first five ILH games. While Punahou rebuilt itself from pit of desperation, Saint Louis emerged as the league’s best team through seven games. But while Saint Louis peaked out and suffered from at least one nagging injury to its key perimeter/transition scorer, Kamehameha and Maryknoll rose from the ashes along with Punahou.
And nobody could ignore Mid-Pacific, the program that had shuttled between D-I and D-II for the past 30-plus years. But even the rising Owls, who had upset Kaiser during the ‘Iolani Classic and won three games during the ILH gauntlet, couldn’t keep up with the depth and talent of its league peers by the playoffs.
Punahou back at the top, or close enough to it, with a playoff tourney title win over Kamehameha. Punahou turned out to be the one kryptonite the Warriors did not overcome. Punahou beat Kamehameha four times in four games going back to preseason, then lost to ‘Iolani, the league’s most consistent and versatile program.
The Raiders are the No. 1 seed of the state tourney, which tips off tonight at McKinley and Moanalua gyms. It is, in many ways, a land laid out with booby traps and imminent danger, no matter how seemingly predictable the brackets may appear. Sure, we all have our ideas of how dominant the ILH truly is (and how underrepresented that league is even though its administrators have voted against expansion, i.e. more berths, for years). And we may believe that Kalaheo and Kaiser are destined to reach the Final 4, or that Leilehua’s size and experience play big at this time of year.
Regardless of what we’ve seen on paper or in the flesh, and especially for those of us who have guessed out loud with rankings from 1 through 71, absolutely nothing is a given, not with Wayne Gushiken’s Baldwin Bears on the floor. Take any foe lightly and find yourself eliminated after one bad quarter. Here’s a look at the opening-day pairings.
Baldwin (10-9, 9-5 MIL) vs. McKinley (16-10, 11-4 OIA), 5 p.m.
The Bears have a long history going back to then-head coach John Garcia and his then-assistant-now-head-coach Gushiken. It doesn’t just read as a resume of great achievements. It’s about how Baldwin basketball is played as much as highlights and headlines.
Though Lahainaluna took the MIL title, the Bears set the template decades ago with methodical halfcourt offense, precision by its guards and, perhaps above all, fundamental ballhandling. Bigs being bigs and guards running a distribution system without leaks. There are no stretch 4s or 5s in an old-school Baldwin offense. Sophomore Chayce Akaka and senior Taje Akaka are their leading scorers.
The Tigers will enjoy homecourt advantage despite the HHSAA’s usual policy regarding neutral sites. Because very few schools offer the HHSAA their gyms as host sites, McKinley gets the benefit. And this is my theory of why the Tigers are in a bracket on their floor instead of the other (Moanalua) site: If they’re going to be in the tournament, they may as well be in a gym where the HHSAA can maximize attendance.
Lord knows they need every dollar to sustain every sport and every tourney.
The Tigers have been fine away and at home this season. With Dan Villejo back to near-normal strength (knee) after an offseason injury, McKinley has been among the best clock-management teams in the state. Villejo, Huthifah Abdel Jawad and Kyle Moraga give the Tigers a steady, mature corps of balhhandlers. Coach Duane Omori’s team knows how to finish a game; they won at Leilehua on Thursday to claim third place in the OIA.
They also have size in the paint with 6-foot-5 Mark Burke, who can run hot or cold at any time.
The winner will face ‘Iolani on Thursday, 7 p.m.
Kaiser (26-5, 12-2 OIA) vs. Kailua (18-12, 8-7 OIA), 7 p.m.
A little more than a week ago, it was previously-unbeaten Roosevelt that was upset by Leilehua in the OIA girls basketball final, and then the Rough Riders were knocked out in the opening round of the state tourney by Mililani.
The pattern could repeat this week with the boys of Kaiser, who finished second last week in the OIA. Kailua knows all about their neighboring rival, and has the size to control the paint. The last time the teams met (Jan. 7), Kaiser’s powerful Chance Kalaugher got into foul trouble and was not a factor as the visiting Cougars rallied to pull out a narrow 48-41 win.
Keoua Mahiko and Nic Tom have been steadying influences on the court for Coach Branden Kawazoe’s team. But Kalaugher is the true power broker here. When he decides to pound inside, nobody in the state can contain him for long. Then he can splash a few 3s later, sending daggers into the hearts of opponents.
But if Kalaugher settles for perimeter shots early and often, just about any team can stay with the immensely talented Cougars because he will not be in position to dominate on the glass. Kaiser just doesn’t have another offensive rebounder at Kalaugher’s intensity level.
Kailua does. Christian Mejia (6-4), Hano Kohatsu (6-3) and versatile Noah Auld (6-3) can close off the trenches as well as any front court. Coach Walter Marciel will shut down every door he can to keep the Surfriders close.
The winner will take on fourth-seeded Waiakea on Thursday, 5 p.m. Waiakea is a bit of a mystery, having stayed on the Big Island since the start of preseason. The Warriors trounced a young Konawaena team over the weekend in the BIIF final.
Konawaena (11-3, 11-2 BIIF) vs. Kahuku (15-12, 9-6 OIA), 5 p.m.
This is an intriguing matchup between the youthful Wildcats, runners-up of the BIIF, and a Red Raider team that was belittled by controversy, removal of its coach and the ensuing litigation that resulted in then-coach Alan Akina’s permanent separation from a program he helped build.
While Akina worked tirelessly during many offseasons to keep his hoopsters active in outside leagues and tournaments miles away in Honolulu, Konawaena’s Donald Awa did much the same with the players from the Kona Stingrays program that he and wife Bobbie started two decades ago.
Kahuku, in this matchup, has the edge with experience and maturity in the paint. Posts Hirkley Latu (6-4) and Bradlee Anae (6-4) are difficult to slow or stop, and the Red Raiders will put a deep bench to work from beginning to end. Interim coach Brandon Akana is under an edict to play his players equal minutes, which can sound unfair from afar, but Kahuku has enough depth to make this work pretty well. For now.
Austin Aukai, junior guard, and sophomore Austin Ewing are Konawaena’s leading scorers. Ewing was a standout quarterback for the Wildcats football team that traveled to Oahu for the D-II state tourney.
Reyson Ching, Maitland Akau and Kupono Kane round out a balanced scoring attack for a team that was unbeaten against the entire BIIF with the exception of Waiakea (two losses) and Kamehameha-Hawaii (split).
The Kahuku-Konawaena winner will meet Kalaheo in Thursday’s 7 p.m. game.
Punahou (24-8, 9-6 ILH) vs. Leilehua (16-7, 11-2 OIA), 7 p.m.
On paper, this should the most fascinating matchup on Day 1 of the dance. Punahou and Leilehua met on Dec. 2 at the James Alegre Invitational. Punahou won 68-63.
Punahou came within one win of taking the ILH title, and of the six teams from that league that have been ranked together in the Star-Advertiser Top 10, the Buffanblu have earned the right to be on the dance floor this week.
Leilehua? They had their moments in preseason with big wins and stunning defeats (Farrington’s talented, but young and thin roster pulled an upset). Then came last week’s home loss to McKinley. So who are the real Leilehua Mules?
The Buffanblu know who they are. They’ve relied on their full roster under Coach Darren Matsuda to extract every last bit of energy to get through one of the most challenging ILH seasons in history. If the Mules slow this game down, Punahou’s depth becomes somewhat neutralized.
But the Buffanblu will be eager and ready to push the ball in transition, and their fullcourt press won’t relent, even against one of the state’s savviest point guards, Joseph Gouty.
If Gouty is snapping that follow-through from the 3-point arc, he becomes basically unguardable. He already possesses an very quick drive to the hoop and is one of the better drive-and-kick passers, particularly with gunners Liam Fitzgerald and Nicholas Duran waiting. Fitzgerald (6-2) and Duran (6-2) are much taller than the OIA’s usual wing scorers, and there’s Koa Kauhi (6-6) and a deep front court of 6-2 bangers.
Can Leilehua find its groove again? The mighty Mules were unbeaten through the OIA West slate, beat Moanalua in the OIA quarterfinals to seal a state berth, then lost to Kalaheo and McKinley. They have yet to take that next step, the big one, but the timing is right. If they can get past Punahou.
The Buffanblu have been described by their own coach as a team without stars, but that’s a bit of a gray-area description. Chris Kobayashi is among the best in the state at spot-up 3-point shooting, as well as creating scoring opportunities off the dribble. Between savvy sophomore guards Zayne Chong, Cole Arceneaux and Hunter Hosoda, they have ballhawking defenders who can hit the 3 and drive and kick.
They go deep and put veterans Hunter Lee and Jared Lum on the floor with youngsters like Kaulana Makaula and Cole Mausolf. The posts are deep, too, but solidified by the return of 6-6 ‘Akahi Troske.
In this system, Matsuda doesn’t have a dependence on one scorer or playmaker. In other programs, some of these Buffanblu would average 20-plus points per night.
In this system, they are all averaging single-digit points, and the team is the star. Matsuda has been more than willing to let go of the leash and let his team run, but their emergence after that 1-4 ILH start has been about playing smarter in the halfcourt game — as young teams tend to do after absorbing the sting of defeats — and not settling for OK shots.
It’s a tough matchup for both teams. The winner will meet MIL champ Lahainaluna on Thursday, 5 p.m.