Elimination Zone: Casing the Big Dance

2015 HHSAA D1 Boys Basketball Bracket

It’s the law of averages, expect the unexpected, counter-intuition.

However fans look at this year’s boys basketball state championships — an up in the cycle of parity and non-parity, the possibility of myriad close games or the surprise of lopsided scores — just about every coach I’ve talked with marvels at the balance in power this season.

New City Nissan/HHSAA Boys Basketball Division I State Championships
Seeded teams

1. Punahou (23-3, 11-1 ILH)
Sure, Punahou is seeded first and has been a powerhouse all season, all decade, all time, basically. But they have been vulnerable, and not just because of a Week 1 loss to Farrington at the James Alegre Invitational, when their football guys were not in basketball uniforms just yet (after playing the state final days earlier). As we saw on Friday, Punahou is capable of destroying a Top 5 team like ‘Iolani for three quarters. The Buffanblu led 37-23 with a balanced attack and a stubborn man-to-man defense.

And yet, their so-so shot selection over the next 10 minutes or so allowed the visiting Raiders to rally and nearly pull of a comeback win. Only a missed, open corner 3 by ‘Iolani salvaged what could’ve been a major momentum downer for the Buffanblu. The teams would’ve met the next day for the ILH title, but the point is clear: Punahou’s biggest foe may be Punahou. They just haven’t mastered the art of closing a game securely. They’re close, though, and deserving of a No. 1 seed.

When they are clicking offensively, it’s tough to stop them all. J.B. Kam is an anomaly, a stretch 4 who can knock down the NBA-range 3. He added a strong drive to the rack this season. Guards Dayson Watanabe and Jordan Tanuvasa are fearless and strong to the hole, and neither hesitates to pull the trigger from deep. Kanawai Noa is a Top 5 defender statewide who takes pride in his on-ball defense and rebounding prowess. He’s the quintessential role player, a guy whose value goes far beyond offensive statistics.

The Buffanblu can go deep into the bench and keep starters rested if coach Darren Matsuda prefers. Low post scorer Akahi Trosky has developed nicely this season, and though he doesn’t get a lot of touches, he is a reliable presence inside.

2. Farrington (22-8, 11-4 OIA)
Farrington? After going 3-3 in OIA play before finishing strong, then disposing of then-No. 1 ranked Kalaheo and No. 2 Kahuku to capture — and defend — the league championship, the Governors are on a roll. They’re on a mature, man-style, halfcourt tempo roll. The Govs can run with the best of them, no question, thanks to the speed of explosive Ranan Mamiya and his teammates. It was Mamiya who drove the middle, pulled up under control and zipped that pass to Jake Smith for a corner 3 that gave Farrington the lead for good with 39 seconds against Kahuku.

But where they’re at their best is in the halfcourt game and in their fullcourt defensive pressure. Both emblems of the late-season run are new in their evolution and maturity. As ‘Iolani proved last season, it’s extremely difficult to beat an offense that patiently, precisely and expertly works until a high-percentage shot is available. (It’s tough enough against Farrington when guys like Bryce Tatupu-Leopoldo can beat Kahuku’s 6-foot-7, 6-6 and 6-5 defenders for SIX offensive boards.)

The Govs have transformed into a team that doesn’t just want the kill shot, like Punahou, the kill shot AT POINT-BLANK RANGE. Observe the many assists by the likes of Tatupu-Leopoldo or Tua Unutoa in the paint to teammates cutting for uncontested layups. They’ll pass off drives. They’ll pass off offensive boards. They’ll just draw you in, eyeball the bucket, sell the move and dish for the easy deuce over and over and over.

That’s what old guys do on “game ball” in a tough pickup game with young, foolish ballers. That’s what the Govs do these days, looking very little like the 3-3 team that was in a mid-season crisis.

Then there’s that 2-1-2 fullcourt press or, more accurately, a three-quarter look. They don’t trap off it in the backcourt. If you don’t bring the right pressbreaker, it’s enough to discombobulate any team. Kalaheo had to slow down to deal with it, and their fatigue by game’s end factored into some crucial errors in an overtime loss. (Yes, I still think Kalaheo has more skill offensively than any team in the tournament, but endurance and interior defense were issues in that OIA semifinal loss.)

Most extended pressure defenses fail at the varsity level if there is no tight, on-ball defender. But with the way the Govs implemented their 2-1-2 this late in the season, nobody saw it coming. Except Kahuku, which had one practice day to prepare (Wednesday) before the OIA final. It wasn’t enough.

Getting the ball past midcourt against that press is not difficult. Dealing with the quickness and aggression of the defense beyond midcourt is what has been a major task. Mamiya simply gets his hands on so many passes that they could go without the fullcourt pressure and just let Mamiya pressure the ball — which they’ve done at times — with positive results.

The killer aspect is this: once Mamiya gets a deflection or a steal, his closing speed is incredible. Very few players can get back in time to stop him. He’ll finish, and if he doesn’t that’s the best scenario for turnover-prone teams. He’s not a great free-throw shooter. But the multitude of tips and fastbreak opportunities add up quickly, and if Mamiya hits just 50 or 60 percent of his foul shots, it’s enough.

NOTE: The HHSAA seeding committee has relied heavily on past results to determine seedings. I wrote last week that there was a season roughly a decade ago when Maui was 27-0 through preseason and MIL play, yet was not a No. 1 seed. If, though, the committee looked this season’s Punahou-Farrington matchups, there’s this:

• Farrington 61, Punahou 53, Dec. 6, James Alegre Invitational. Punahou’s football players sat out.

• Punahou 68, Farrington 50, Dec. 13, OIA-ILH Challenge at Moanalua.

• Punahou 51, Kalaheo 41, Dec. 19, Pete Smith Invitational.

Today? This week? Neither team is the same as it was two months ago. The only way we’ll know how much better Farrington is now is if these teams play in the final on Saturday at Stan Sheriff Center.

Whether it’s the high school or college ranks, it’s fairly rare to find a state (or national) champion with as many as eight losses. My foggy memory bank recalls an Indiana team that went unbeaten to win the crown one year. But didn’t the Hoosiers also have a nine-loss champ, too? Farrington has dispelled all non-believers so far. More to come this week? Perhaps.

Govs coach Allan Silva put it best.

“We had a talk with all the guys about lokahi. Unity. We’re a family here and we had to play together,” he said. “We appreciate our supporters, but we also appreciate our doubters and haters because they motivate us.”

3. Lahainaluna (24-2, 14-0 MIL)
I got to see Lahainaluna play one game this season. It was the final of the St. Francis tournament, a matchup with a Canadian team, Chestermere, on Dec. 30. Before a modest crowd of about 50 spectators, the Lunas put on a show, winning 47-32.

They were balanced. They had size with Cyrus Kama, a 6-4 senior, and 6-5 Ryan Madeira. Their guard play was very controlled, yet quick in both transition offense and defense. They had a nice wing scorer in Josh Chapital (16 points against Chestermere). They had all the right pieces, and I shocked that they won the MIL?

No. A little surprised — I felt like Baldwin and senior point guard Kody Takushi would fare better — but it was clear in preseason after seeing both teams that the Lunas were stronger and crisper.

The Lunas have losses to Pahoa and Heritage Woods, two teams I haven’t seen. Pahoa, though, has my respect. The Daggers have been the BIIF’s best team this season regardless of D-I or D-II, and the Lunas’ early season loss to Pahoa at Keaau’s gym — five miles from Pahoa’s campus — was pretty close, 46-40.

I don’t knock down the Lunas for that loss, though most fans might considering Pahoa is in Division II. But basketball is about what’s on the court, not how many players are on the roster. It’s not football, where it’s nearly impossible to win consistently without at least 40 players. That’s why I don’t penalize Pahoa, but it is why I’ve voted Pahoa ahead of Lahainaluna on my Top 10 ballot all season long.

This is what Lunas coach Jason Justus said after they won the St. Francis tourney.

“I’m more concerned about us, not Maui and Baldwin. They’re great teams. Our transition defense got better. That’s a big key this season. We’ll be facing teams that’ll be like a track meet.”

At the time, Madeira was out with an injury.

“Physically, we’re very gifted. We’ve got six seniors. I’m going to enjoy my time coaching them,” Justus said.

At 14-0 in the MIL and 24-2 overall, I’d say they’ve all enjoyed their season at Lahainaluna. But make no mistake, their lack of statewide exposure puts them in a clear underdog role. They haven’t beaten a Top 10 team all season, though Baldwin may have been ranked early on. The Lunas are in prime position to shock the world.

4. Konawaena (10-8. 8-6 BIIF)
Feeling lucky just to be in the big dance? Maybe a bit. Coach Donald Awa had an older, savvy team last season sparked by his son, Brandon, an all-state guard. They traveled to Oahu, won the Pete Smith Classic (beating Kalaheo in the final) and stormed through the BIIF before losing at the state tourney.

This year, the Wildcats are young. There’s just one senior on the roster, along with five freshmen, four sophomores and three juniors. Just about every competitive game came down to a margin of 5 or fewer points, win or lose. They lost to the BIIF’s D-II powers, Pahoa and Kohala, by four-point margins. Then, the Wildcats matured by the playoffs to win twice at the Afook-Chinen Hilo Civic, beating Waiakea (53-48) and Kamehameha-Hawaii (51-49).

Sophomore Kamakana Ching, a 6-2 center, had a team-high 14 points in the win over KS-Hawaii. Freshman guard Austin Ewing added nine points. Ewing’s sister, Gabby, is a standout player for Hawaii Prep’s soccer team, which won the state D-II title over the weekend.

For a young team to battle through so many close games, and then reach the state tourney — that’s being well tested. The ‘Cats are in the big dance, but teams like McKInley — which beat Konawaena by 12 at this season’s Pete Smith Classic — are not. How much have the Wildcats improved over the past two months? We’ll find out this week.

Here’s a look at the brackets, starting with editor Jerry Campany’s “Group of Death’ at Moanalua.

Maui (8-5 MIL) vs. Kalaheo (27-3, 13-1 OIA)
Opening round, 5:00 p.m., Moanalua bracket

Results: Maui finished second in the MIL, edging Baldwin 42-39 for the final berth in the league tournament’s semifinal round. Kalaheo was stunned by Farrington in the OIA semifinal, their only loss since sustaining back-to-back defeats at the hands of McKinley and Farrington in preseason.

Rankings: Maui is unranked. Kalaheo was at No. 1 through the regular season after beating Punahou on a last-second shot, 41-40, at Punahou’s preseason tournament. With the loss to Farrington, and then a win over Leilehua for third place in the OIA, the Mustangs are now at No. 3 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10.

Skinny: Like Lahainaluna, Maui has the benefit of being off the radar when it comes to TV exposure statewide.

The Mustangs are tall, long and skilled offensively. Kaleb Gilmore gets to the rim at will from the point or wing, and he has meshed rather seamlessly since arriving from Maryknoll before his senior year. The Mustangs have all kinds of tools and skilled perimeter players, but the lack of a constant post scorer is something they could use.

Kupaa Harrison, at 6-4 1/2, is still not 100 percent since injuring an ankle in Week 1. When Kalaheo played at Baldwin’s preseason tourney, he was far from ready, but saw some minutes anyway. Harrison is a fluid scorer and passer capable of scoring on the low post.

Gilmore (19 points per game) and Harrison (15 ppg) are a stellar 1-2 punch, but coach Alika Smith has depth and experience on his roster. Kekai Smith is a strong defensive stopper in the backcourt and Alec MacLeod does a bit of everything as a 3/4 combo with 3-point range.

Tristan Nichols, a 6-4 junior, has been a huge factor for the Sabers. He’s capable of scoring 20-plus points against tall and not-so-tall defenders alike.

X Factor: Maui has proven to be tough, but they haven’t faced a tall team with speed like Kalaheo. Manipulating the tempo is key for the MIL runner-up, or it’ll be a Mustang runaway.

Pupule says: Historically, MIL teams have been very good (Baldwin) over the years if they’ve had a lot of experience with Oahu-based officiating. Maui hasn’t played off island all season. It could be a rough first half.

Oddly, strangely, amazingly enough, had the OIA season played out as most expected, Farrington would’ve finished third (or fourth). The Govs would probably be in this matchup with the Sabers, not the Mustangs.

Pupule pick: Mustangs 67, Sabers 49.

The winner will play Punahou on Thursday, 7 p.m., at Moanalua.

Kahuku (16-4, 12-2 OIA) vs. Moanalua (14-13, 8-7 OIA)
Opening round, 7:00 p.m., Moanalua bracket

Results: These teams met once, on Jan. 21, at Moanalua. Kahuku won 56-44. The Red Raiders had an 11-game win streak in OIA play after losing the league opener at Kalaheo. Then came the title-game loss to Farrington.

Na Menehune have been a bubble team, dangerous enough to upset any ranked foe. They beat McKinley 70-65 to earn a state-tourney berth.

Rankings: Moanalua is unranked. Kahuku is No. 4 after being at No. 2 last week.

Skinny: Kahuku has size, savvy and just enough perimeter shooting to be a monster opponent for any team in the islands. The high-low game in the post between 6-6 Hyrum Harris (12 ppg) and 6-7 leaper Denhym Brooke (13 ppg) is a thing of beauty at times. Samuta Avea, at 6-5 (or 6-3, depending on your roster), is a jumping jack whose offensive guard skills (11 ppg) combine with his outstanding defensive work in the paint. He and Brooke are a tremendous shot-blocking wall.

Moanalua has a stud in 6-4 post Kyrie McRaven (20 ppg), who is comfortable with the mid-range shot. Their ability to pressure the ball defensively is key, and they’ll need it against a Kahuku team that would be content to pound the ball inside against another smaller foe.

X Factor: Kahuku gunner Keanu Akina (11 ppg) continues to get open looks, and he does not hesitate to move without the ball to get a shot up from the top, wing or corner. His ability to hit from deep is huge for Kahuku, and if Moanalua can’t contain him, they’ll have to cross their fingers as they keep Brooke, Harris and Avea occupied.

Pupule says: Kahuku has been vulnerable against strong, extended defensive pressure. Coach Alan Akina has often used Harris as a lighthouse in the backcourt, and he rarely commits a miscue with his deft passes. If PG Tama Green stays out of foul trouble, the Red Raiders will have many more opportunities to score against Moanalua’s pressure. If.

Pupule pick: Red Raiders 62, Na Menehune 52.

The winner will play Konawaena on Thursday, 5 p.m., at Moanalua.

Kamehameha-Hawaii (11-14, 9-5 BIIF) vs. Campbell (16-7, 11-2 OIA)
Opening round, 5 p.m., McKinley bracket

Results: These teams have not met yet this season. The Warriors finished second in the BIIF D-I tournament, losing 61-59 to Konawaena in the final. Campbell finished second in the OIA West, then lost to Farrington in the quarterfinal round at home.

Skinny: KS-Hawaii is somewhat young with just two seniors, but has some experience with guard Bayley Manliguis and swingman Pukana Vincent. Manliguis scored 13 points in the loss to Konawaena. Vincent had 15.

Campbell has multiple weapons, but in close games, there hasn’t been a consistent go-to playmaker. They have size, explosiveness and a shotblocker (6-5 David Marrero). If they can figure out how to work the high and low posts to get easier shots, they won’t be so dependent on the perimeter, where Michael Merchant can be hot or not.

X Factor: The Warriors travel every year to Oahu for preseason action and they got theirs at the Punahou Invitational, winning once (‘Iolani II), losing twice in close games (Mid-Pacific, Mt. Pleasant) and getting beaten by Moanalua 53-34. They’ve also played quality teams and quality tall teams since Week 1 (Lahainaluna, Pahoa, Saint Louis). Those early battles on and off island should be a plus for coach Dominic Pacheco’s squad.

Pupule says: Point guard Jumar “Jet” Gapusan has been a sparkplug for two years, but he basically faded against Farrington’s relentless pressure defense during the playoffs. If he bounces back strong, the Sabers could be the sleeper of this tourney.

Pupule pick: Sabers 59, Warriors 57.

The winner will play Farrington on Thursday, 5 p.m., at McKinley.

‘Iolani (15-7, 8-4 ILH) vs. Leilehua (17-9, 11-2 OIA)
Opening round, 7 p.m., McKinley bracket

Results: The Raiders came within a buzzer-beater shot of edging Punahou during the ILH playoffs. They are the defending state champions and ILH runners-up.

Leilehua lost to Kahuku in the OIA semifinals, and then lost at Kalaheo in the third-place game. The Mules are the OIA 4.

Rankings: The Raiders are No. 5 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. Leilehua is at No. 7.

Skinny: The Mules are a classic, hard-working, defensively-oriented team. They’re blessed with some good height (center Koa Kauhi is 6-5) and athleticism. A.J. Gainwell is a linebacker on the gridiron and a rebounding force on the hardwood. PG Joseph Gouty has been a tough-nosed penetrator and playmaker.

Overall, coach Patrick Wetzel has extracted just about everything he can from this lineup, but their lack of perimeter shooting accuracy is one thing he can’t change at this point. The Mules gave Kahuku a tough half, but eventually, they just couldn’t stop the Red Raiders’ offense while shooting blanks on their side.

The Raiders are balanced and deep, and though they have quickness, coach Dean Shimamoto is selective about when he throws fullcourt pressure on opponents. PG Erik Yamada has been tough and effective driving into the paint against strong, tall defenses. Junior guard Zach Gelacio has been a boost to the offense, and 6-1 junior Robby Mann gives them a solid producer as a wing who can bang on the boards.

X Factor: Kauhi will need help from David Tibayan (6-3) and Gainwell on the boards against ‘Iolani’s duo of Hugh Hogland (6-8) and Kamu Borden (6-4). Hogland can be hot or cold. When he has single coverage, he can be very effective on the low post. His ability to anticipate double teams, especially with Gouty charing in from the elbow in the Mules’ 2-3 zone, could be the key.

Pupule says: The Mules have enough offense in slasher Nicholas Duran (6-0), and 3-point shooters Jayeson Baine (6-0) and Liam Fitzgerald (6-2). Getting them going early would be a big bonus. It won’t be easy against ‘Iolani’s tough man defense.

Pupule pick: Raiders 51, Mules 46.

The winner will meet Lahainaluna on Thursday, 7 p.m., at McKinley.


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