Boys hoops: D-I state preview

(Here’s the extended-length version of this morning’s preview of the Division I bracket in the Hawaiian Airlines/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships.)

The big blue mountain awaits any basketball team seeking to upset top-seeded Punahou.

DeForest Buckner, a 6-foot-7, 250-pound senior, is the difference between the Buffanblu being a very good team or a great team. Without him, Punahou sustained its only loss during the regular season.

With him, no opponent can score and rebound at the rim against Buckner, who started his career as a slender aggressor. He’s now filled out to mammoth proportions, soon on his way to Eugene, Ore., to play football for the powerhouse that Phil Knight built.

Punahou has it somewhat good thanks to its top seed in the Hawaiian Airlines/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships, which tip off today. Of the top five teams in the weekly Star-Advertiser Top 10 rankings, the other four besides Punahou are in the opposite bracket from the Buffanblu.

Here’s a look at the Division I seeded teams and opening-round matchups in the

1. Punahou (24-2, 11-1 Interscholastic League of Honolulu)

On paper: Between Buckner and a deep backcourt, the Buffanblu are tough defensively and have that basketball IQ that few teams can match. Buckner is capable of a 20 points and 20 boards on any given night, but it’s the depth at guard that has coach Darren Matsuda in position to guide the Buffanblu to their first state title since 2008.

The skinny: Steven Lakalaka comes off the bench to provide stability and savvy for a young backcourt. Freshmen Dayson Watanabe and Jordan Tanuvasa are part of the rotation, arguably the finest young-guard duo at Punahou in years. Shooting guard Nick Velasquez, a 6-1 junior, is possibly the best spot-up shooter in the tourney. Kupono Fey has emerged as a reliable complementary scorer in the post and on the wing.

X factor: Malik Johnson, a 6-5 senior, can affect a game with his athleticism and length without scoring big points. If he gets his offensive game going, Punahou’s that much tougher to stop.

2. Kahuku (29-9, 16-1 Oahu Interscholastic Association)

On paper: The Red Raiders have offensive weapons in Mason Kuali‘i-Moe (eight assists in the OIA title game), Kawehena Johnson and post Mekeli Fiso. Since losing to Kalaheo in a preseason tourney, they’ve won 17 of their last 18 games, putting together a consistent level of intensity and unselfishness.

The skinny: Kahuku brings furious defensive pressure via a 1-2-1-1 fullcourt press, but what’s changed since a rough start to nonconference play is the development of the bench. Coach Darren Johnson gets plenty of help from reserves Lasselle Thompson and Benny Fonua.

The return of 6-3 speedster Bronson Beatty from a football injury — he was part of the heralded “Sharks” secondary that helped Kahuku win the state crown — is another major plus. He scored 15 points against Kapolei in the OIA final.

X factor: Fiso is extremely quick for a post, a clever senior who uses footwork to get maximum advantage on the block against taller defenders. But turnovers have been a bane to the Red Raiders at times, as was the case in a loss to Kamehameha-Hawaii in December. If Kuali‘i-Moe can protect the ball and avoid foul trouble, Kahuku is difficult to slow down.

3. Kamehameha-Hawaii (22-5, 13-1 Big Island Interscholastic Federation)

On paper: Fans of the Warriors were miffed at being seeded below Kahuku, a team they split with in December at two different tournaments on Oahu. Lanaki Apele and Shaun Kagawa are one of the best all-time backcourts from the Big Island, proficient and prolific on both ends of the floor.

Despite the trips to Oahu, KS-Hawaii faced a limited number of Top 10 teams. They have wins over Farrington and Kahuku, as well as Mission Prep (Calif.) and Amador Valley (Calif.).

The skinny: Though Apele and Kagawa get plenty of pub, the agility of KS-Hawaii’s bigs is a serious concern for all foes. Jacob Kackley (6-3) is a bruiser in the paint with a precise shooting touch. Kaeo Alapai (6-0) and Kekoa Turner (6-2) also hit the boards, capable of going coast to coast.

X factor: Officiating is always a factor with KS-Hawaii, a team that loves to cover from baseline to baseline with Apele and Kagawa as tactically superior enforcers.

“We’re better off putting our (on-ball) pressure on Oahu than here,” coach Dominic Pacheco said. “The top refs let us put pressure.”

4. Baldwin (24-3, 12-0 Maui Interscholastic League)

On paper: The Bears swept through their league, but got plenty of serious competition from runner-up King Kekaulike, winning 43-41 in the title game. Though they have a dominant record, it wasn’t enough to convince the seeding committee of anything higher than a four seed.

The skinny: The Bears are a mystery for a lot of hoop watchers, but they have a steady senior point guard in Gabriel Ross and plenty of size with 6-foot-3 Pasoni Tasini and Bradley Bowlin (6-4). The last time Baldwin went deep at the state tourney, wing players like Trenson Himalaya stepped up with key perimeter shooting and rebounding. This team hasn’t gotten that kind of contribution. Yet.

X factor: Freshman guard Kody Takushi showed his range and cold-blooded, zone-busting talent when the Bears played in the James Alegre Invitational two months ago.

AOP (19-7, 8-4 ILH) vs. Pearl City (15-10, 10-5 OIA)

On paper: The Dolphins got a taste of contention the past two years. They’ve already beaten Punahou once and the hunger with a senior-heavy lineup is undeniable. Though unseeded, they are ranked No. 2 in the Top 10 rankings. In other words, the seeding committee made Pearl City the longest of long shots.

The skinny: Wilson MacLeod gives coach Walter Marciel a wing who can attack the rack, but without a surplus of perimeter shooting, AOP has wisely been patient, sharing the ball and relying on depth and size to eke out one close win after another.

They’re deep in the backcourt with David Daniel, Carter Kauwenaole, Shai Brown and Kamana Keohohou, and Drew Viena’s versatility gives them a 6-2 rebounder who may be their best ballhandler under pressure.
Brothers Arkadiy Mkrtychyan (6-6) and Artur Mkrtychyan (6-3) bring savvy and maturity to the floor.

Pearl City’s mantra all season has been tempo and ball control. Coach Lionel Villarmia’s team had to squeeze past Mililani — “A lucky win,” he says — to qualify for states. Paul Perry was clutch in the win over Mililani.

X factor: A win by the Chargers would probably require great shooting accuracy, a la Villanova-Georgetown some 27 years ago, but it’s possible against a slower tempo team like AOP.

“That’s our speed,” Villarmia said.

Kamehameha (20-8, 10-5 ILH) vs. King Kekaulike (14-7, 9-5 MIL)  

On paper: This is Na Alii’s first trip to the boys state tourney, and it could’ve been as the MIL champ. They lost to Baldwin at home in the league final by a basket. Kamehameha is the defending state champion, led by guard Dyrbe Enos.

The skinny: A first-time trip to Honolulu for the state tourney is tough and rough for any team, but going up against the Warriors is a huge task for veteran coach Bill Naylor and Na Alii.

While Kamehameha has Enos, a deadly shooter and scorer, and a world of depth at every position, King Kekaulike has one reliable producer in Jansen Agapay. Naylor’s squad may prefer to keep the tempo slower, but Kamehameha coach Julian Nakanishi has his squad pushing the ball at every opportunity. It will be Nakanishi’s first quest for a state crown as a head coach. His brother, Jesse, led the Kapalama hoopsters to titles in 2009 and ’11.

X factor: Another factor is their lack of familiarity with Oahu’s officials. MIL teams have occasionally had trouble adjusting to the different style of officiating.

Kapolei (19-4, 13-2 OIA) vs. Leilehua (12-11, 10-4 OIA)  

On paper: The Hurricanes stormed through the West en route to the league final before losing to Kahuku twice in the double-elimination format. One of those wins was over Leilehua, but it was extremely close, a 60-56 overtime game on the ‘Canes home court.

Christopher Dillard, a 6-4 post, can be overwhelming. He had a 23-point, 18-rebound, five-block performance in one of the losses to Kahuku.

Coach Pat Wetzel’s Mules had a rough preseason, going 2-7, but with their football athletes in basketball mode now, they’re peaking. Mikal Peyton, Jeremiah Andrade and Russell Siavii are major contributors, and Troy Ross has emerged as a productive scorer.

The skinny: The downside to having a large league (OIA) is a matchup like this, the league’s second- and fourth-place teams meeting in the state tourney. The Mules have nothing to lose in a scenario like this.

X factor: Coach Gary Ellison’s ‘Canes have a thin, thin bench that managed to score just two points in the title game against Kahuku. That puts the scoring responsibilities squarely on Dillard and perimeter players like Curtis Tavares and Joshua Wills.

Hilo (19-9, 10-5 BIIF) vs. Moanalua (22-11, 11-4 OIA) 

On paper: The Vikings may be the sleeper of the tourney, but they have championship experience with coach Jason Mandaquit, who was the point guard of Hilo’s 2000 state title team. They run and gun and press relentlessly.

“They’re a feisty team,” KS-Hawaii coach Dominic Pacheco said.

Hilo knocked out Konawaena to claim a state berth, then pushed KS-Hawaii hard before losing in the BIIF final. Sophomores Drew Kell and Jalen Carvalho are key cogs for the undersized, but fast Vikings.

Coach Greg Tacon has steered his relatively inexperienced unit into a formidable, grind-it-out contender. Tacon goes deep from start to finish, using 10 to 12 players most nights. He has quick, defensive-minded guards in Daib Starks and Kahanu Puulei-Auld, while freshman Eliet Donley (6-2) is a versatile weapon in the post and on the 3-point arc.

The skinny: Hilo hasn’t been to Oahu in some time, so the adjustment and focus will be key elements for Mandaquit. Moanalua’s faced many of the state’s best teams since the start of nonconference play and won’t be rattled by anything — except perhaps Hilo’s fullcourt press.

X factor: Moanalua’s depth is a factor in a fast-tempo game, but if Tacon slows it to a grind, that works heavily in Na Menehune’s favor.

Tomorrow: A look at the wide-open Division II state tourney.

Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser


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