More than most fans can remember in the past decade or two — maybe longer? — this season’s brackets and pairings in the Snapple/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships were as unexpected as ever.
Revisiting the seedings
Kalaheo’s run through the Oahu Interscholastic Association playoffs included upset wins over West 1 Kapolei and East 1 Kahuku, two teams that had been perfect through league play. The result in the HHSAA seedings and pairings was this: Kalaheo received the 2 seed (which I agree with) behind ILH champion Maryknoll. Lahainaluna got the 3 seed and Kamehameha-Hawaii has the 4.
First, the case for Kalaheo (20-11 overall including nonconference games) at No. 2.
> Even though injuries played a part in Kalaheo’s wild roller-coaster season, there’s no disputing that no other league champion aside from Maryknoll had as many wins over Top 10 teams. Kalaheo beat Lahainaluna and Kailua before edging Kapolei and Kahuku in this week’s OIA playoffs. The Mustangs were a decent 4-8 against ranked teams, but it’s been a long, long time since any OIA team beat two unbeaten (in league play) teams for the championship.
Consistency? Let’s face it. Kalaheo is now on a nine-game win streak. All the struggles during the ‘Iolani Classic and the first two weeks of OIA East play are long gone. In addition, the East was tremendously balanced this season. Kalaheo’s 7-3 mark in regular-season play was quite respectable.
MIL champion Lahainaluna (18-6) improved significantly from the beginning of nonconference play (early November) until the end of nonconference play (late December). Defense, length, height, disciplined offense. But because of the MIL’s decline over the years overall in boys hoops, the Lunas didn’t have a single game against a Top 10 during league play. Their one win against a ranked team was over Moanalua, and they were 1-5 against Top 10 teams. The 52-50 loss to ‘Iolani in December was impressive. This was an ‘Iolani team that held its own in ILH play. Then again, that game was at the Lahaina Civic. An inter-island trip to play a good team on its home court is easily worth 8 to 12 points. There’s a case to be made that the Lunas deserved the 2 seed, but in the end, the win over Moanalua — which they also lost to during nonconference play — wasn’t enough to justify it.
Kamehameha-Hawaii (22-3) has played five ranked teams — or mainland teams at this level — and won two, beating Kailua and South Anchorage. Like Lahainaluna, the Warriors are in a league hasn’t competed at the level of the 1990s or 2000s state-title and state contenders. Add to this the plethora of KS-Hawaii’s close wins over the BIIF’s best, and they don’t have a strong case for a 3 seed, let alone a 2. Nalu Kahapea is generally unstoppable anywhere on the floor, but KS-Hawaii has not dominated the BIIF. They’ve simply been better every night. Is that domination? It’s consistency. Every game against a top 3 BIIF team was a single-digit win. Back when the BIIF had two, three or four teams worthy of being in a statewide Top 10, that made sense.
There’s a case to be made, due to the aforementioned inconsistency of Kalaheo, that the Mustangs should’ve been a 4 seed. I don’t see it, but in a few other seasons, yes, an underdog won the OIA title, became the 4 seed at states. But beating a West 1 and East 1 — both previously unbeaten in league play — is extreme.
For argument’s sake, let’s say Kalaheo was the 4 seed. That would’ve made it simpler for the seeding committee to put OIA 2 Kahuku and OIA 3 Kapolei into the same sub-bracket with ILH 2 Punahou rather than ILH 1 Maryknoll. Doesn’t a No. 1 seed deserve the path of least resistance? Of course, yes.
So let’s look at the pairings and see how things match up in what appears, on paper, to be one of the most balanced fields in boys hoops state tourney history.
Opening round, a.k.a. play-in games
Kapolei Hurricanes (17-6) @ Kamehameha-Maui Warriors (11-9), Monday, 7 p.m.
> Winner vs. Maryknoll, Moanalua gym, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Seed: Unseeded. OIA third-place team.
Seed: Unseeded. MIL second-place team.
Skinny: The Warriors are largely untested at this level. They had three Top 10-level games, all losses to league champ Lahainaluna by margins of 29, 13 and 37 points. There are losses to University (72-44), Kapaa, Baldwin, Maui, King Kekaulike… but there are a few teams in the tourney, like Kalaheo, who have losses to unranked teams on their ledger. Unlike Kalaheo, however, KS-Maui hasn’t made a big splash of late. There is this, though: back-to-back wins over Maui to qualify for states. Maui was a scrappy, hustling team that competed every night and never gave up. That counts for something here.
The Hurricanes are on edge, which is good, since their upset loss to Kalaheo in the OIA semifinals. They responded with a 24-point over McKinley for third place. Here’s where it gets slightly weird. In many years past, the OIA 4 got an easier path than the OIA 3 in the boys and girls basketball tournaments. Not the case here. Though the ‘Canes have to fly to Maui and drive 30 minutes Upcountry on Monday, this matchup doesn’t have anywhere near the difficultly that McKinley will have playing at Punahou.
So maybe the chaos of Kalaheo’s unexpected OIA title run did something to stabilize the order of things. Maybe this was a good disturbance of the force.
Kapolei’s kryptonite hasn’t changed entirely over the years. When the ‘Canes need a sure basket, it rarely comes off a post-up. In fact, the way some coaches are married to man-to-man defenses, Kapolei seems married to outside-in offense only. It’s not for lack of height, of course. But when the ‘Canes needed offensive stability, they were unable to post up 6-4 Zoar Nedd or 6-4 Marquis Montgomery. Everyone became a de facto wing cutting to the basket and clearing out. They never took advantage of their size against Kalaheo.
With Ja’Shon Carter and Isiah Higa occupying the point and wing alternatively — and quite effectively — Kapolei’s slash-oriented attack works often. At this point, though, who will step up when they need one point to tie or win a game? Or will a contested 3 be tolerable?
X-factor: This is a business trip for the Hurricanes. Unlike Lahainaluna, they will not present the same problem on the block. However, they will show KS-Maui far more athleticism at every position, much more speed coast to coast. And unlike the Lunas, who cruised through the MIL, Kapolei will play with something to prove. That’s the benefit of having a senior core. They want to leave the ultimate legacy, and that starts on Monday.
Kailua Surfriders (18-11) @ Kahuku Red Raiders (24-4), Monday, 6:30 p.m.
> Winner vs. Kamehameha-Hawaii, Moanalua gym, Wednesday, 5 p.m.
Seed: Unseeded. OIA sixth-place team.
Kahuku: Unseeded. OIA second-place team.
Skinny: Head to head, Kahuku went on the road defeated Kailua 49-37 on Jan. 25. For all of Kailua’s inconsistency, a lot of this can be attributed to its youth. Everett Torres-Kahapea is a junior. So is budding standout Isaiah Hopson, the 6-foot-6 transfer from American Samoa. In a year, this could be a flip-flopped situation with Kailua as the veteran team and Kahuku as the younger unit. Right now, Kahuku has youth, too, but with 6-10 senior Tolu Smith, they are in win-now mode.
Kahuku might still be reeling from the 55-53 loss to Kalaheo in the OIA final, but the issues at hand are correctible. 1) Smith didn’t get much rest through the game. Even with Kahuku ahead 16 points at the half. 2) They settled for some shots that weren’t high percentage. Hit a 3, good. Miss a 3 moments later and it’s a question mark, especially with the most dominant player in the league, Smith, on the court. 3) Kalaheo’s fullcourt press created havoc, but if Smith is the lighthouse in the middle of the floor, how would any press stop the nimble giant?
All fixable, which Coach Brandyn Akana and staff are surely doing.
Kailua will need a near-perfect game to get past Kahuku. The Red Raiders won’t let it happen. They will use their physical, athletic guards to swarm all over Torres-Kahapea. But the Red Raiders aren’t likely to press fullcourt, not with zone traps, which is something they’ve had success with in most years.
Kailua will not play Kahuku’s game. Coach Walter Marciel will probably have his defense sandwich Smith and tempt Kahuku to launch from the arc. Kalaheo did an excellent job of smothering Smith. He finished with only six rebounds not for lack of effort, but simply because he was always outnumbered and Kalaheo took boxing out seriously.
Will Kailua have the team IQ to do the same on every single shot attempt?
Torres-Kahapea scored 44 points in a nonconference win over Kapolei. He is always a risk to break out against any defense, crafty enough to seek easy points, skilled enough to splash a multitude of open or contested 3s. Kahuku lost track of things down the stretch and allowed Kalaheo to rain 3s. That makes Kailua dangerous at all times.
X-factor: The Red Raiders weren’t quite the same once Marcus Damuni hurt his ankle during the second half against Kalaheo. He does so many crucial things well — crashing the offensive glass, scoring inside, covering elite scorers, making the right passes and decisions, hustling for every loose ball — it’s difficult to measure how much value he brings. All that’s clear is that Kahuku lost a large lead and lost a title game after Damuni got hurt.
Moanalua Na Menehune (16-12) @ Konawaena Wildcats (14-5), Monday, 5:30 p.m.
> Winner vs. Kalaheo, McKinley gym
Seed: Unseeded, OIA fifth-place team.
Seed: Unseeded, BIIF second-place team.
Skinny: Na Menehune nearly missed the OIA playoffs, claimed the last playoff berth, went on the road for four games and won three. This is the same Moanalua team that played inconsistent defense in nonconference play, but went to Leilehua and limited the Mules to 43 points. Two days later, in the fifth-place game, they were back in the saddle in a racehorse battle at Kailua, winning 74-65.
Moanalua has always been able to run the floor over the past several years. Freshman guard Geremy Robinson has been as good as expected, and returnees Caleb Casinas and Saige Pulu deliver offensively. Even 6-5 sophomore DiAeris McRaven gets his offensive chops going at times.
Defending the rim, adjusting to a slow-grind tempo when necessary, and winning at both speeds had eluded Na Menehune often this season. McRaven too often has been left on his own to battle two, three offensive rebounders as some teammates stand and watch. And yet, here they are. The team that lost four of five games during an early stretch in the OIA East regular season has now won six of its last seven games. They can thank the OIA and its forgiving playoff format, but they really deserve credit for stepping up defensively, at least enough to win when the season is on the line.
The Wildcats have a history of drawing big crowds to Col. Ellison Onizuka Memorial Gymnasium, even bigger than their nine-time state champion girls basketball program. Austin Ewing, the gunslinging quarterback who recently signed with Southern Utah, is a key contributor on the hardwood. Konawaena may actually be better as its young core matures over the next year or two, but this is a major opportunity. Moanalua has not played off island all season. BIIF referees tend to call a lot of light contact. Kealakekua is nothing like Salt Lake. There are no condos in sight. Plenty of cows and horses, of course.
On paper, Moanalua should be the better team. They have four wins over Top 10 teams. Konawaena has played just one ranked team all season: Kamehameha-Hawaii, which beat the Wildcats twice in close games (58-52, 56-51).
X-factor: It’s unlikely that Moanalua will look past any foe. They know, though, that if they can get this win, Kalaheo is next. January 3: Moanalua 81, Kalaheo 68. The Mustangs are a much improved team since then, but Moanalua’s opportunity to continue the turnaround is here. It just requires the biggest road trip of the season.
McKinley Tigers (14-13) @ Punahou Buffanblu (25-3), Monday, 6:30 p.m.
> Winner vs. Lahainaluna, McKInley gym
Seed: Unseeded. OIA sixth-place team.
Seed: Unseeded: ILH second-place team.
Skinny: OK, the OIA 3 (Kapolei) got a less difficult path than the OIA 4 (McKinley). That’s sensible. So how did OIA 5 Moanalua draw Konawaena, or OIA 6 Kailua get Kahuku? OK, Kailua has it tough. But Moanalua-Konawaena? Shouldn’t it be Moanalua against Punahou and McKinley against Konawaena?
The inter-island hopping is a huge disadvantage for Moanalua, absolutely no question. But Punahou was the No. 1 team in the state for five weeks, pushed Maryknoll to the edge and nearly won the ILH, clearly the most consistent and strongest league in the state.
Punahou was dominant most of the season, winning big, They’re deep, they have elite slashers in Zayne Chong and Cole Arceneaux. They have athletes protecting the rim, pressuring full court, and they can win at hyper speed. They can and have won slowdown crawls. Junior Kaulana Makaula, a spidery 6-3, has emerged as a defensive stopper who can defend at any position. Cole Mausolf, a long 6-5, is another matchup issue for most teams, a true 3-and-D weapon. Tamatoa Falatea also perked up this season as a 3-and-D contributor off the bench.
Punahou will do all it can to lure McKinley into a series of sprints, track-meet style. McKinley will do all it can to milk every possession and force the Buffanblu to exert energy defensively. It’s a code that made Kahuku’s win in the OIA quarterfinals difficult to earn. But unlike Kahuku, Punahou will be more than willing to zone trap fullcourt from start to finish. That would probably wear out the gritty Tigers.
Kyle Moraga, their talented senior, poured in 19 points against Kahuku. McKinley couldn’t hold on to the slower tempo, Kahuku sped the game up and turned a close game into a 16-point win. Moraga can’t do this himself. The other young Tigers will have to step up.
X-factor: ‘Iolani’s guile and scrappy effort on both ends are the kind of elements that lead to upset wins over Punahou. The Raiders beat Punahou 63-58 just two weeks ago. Can the Tigers replicate ‘Iolani’s formula?