The reason for all those pre-dawn get-ups, for those preseason sand sprints and for generally getting in the best shape of their lives was brought into focus in a spontaneous instant yesterday.
"Whoever wins the Man Drill, they’re my starters," Hawaii basketball coach Gib Arnold said he told his team about halfway through their closed practice.
That halfcourt drill, introduced to Arnold by his former boss at USC, Tim Floyd, is a 60-second test of heart where players, in two teams of five, work to deny the ball to a matched-up foe who plays the same position. No whistles. After a minute of intense cutting and fighting for position, the ball goes to the other team. Whichever of the two players at each of the five positions caught more passes is a winner.
Arnold said that of the five Rainbow Warriors who will be introduced today in UH’s 7 p.m. exhibition vs. Chaminade at the Stan Sheriff Center, one player won a start that he wouldn’t have otherwise received.
It was a curveball near the end of a preseason that featured some innovative and demanding conditioning training. But the ‘Bows feel strong about their fitness level at the outset of a new season under their new coach, who is likewise pleased with their progress.
Strength and conditioning coach Chris McMillian is charged with making it happen. He’s been gratified with every incremental leap or burst of speed.
"I love it, man," said McMillian, a 30-year-old former point guard at Wyoming. "You know, it’s funny, when I first met with Gib and we talked, he made it very clear: This is what I expect from you, and this is the job I want you to do. And if it’s not done the right way, then we’re going to find somebody that’s going to get it done the right way. And as a boss, you have to respect that."
Before the start of official practices in mid-October, the players went through a rigorous eight-week period featuring Saturday pre-dawn sessions at Waikiki Beach.
Senior co-captain Bill Amis thinks he’s in the best shape of his life. Hard to argue after he won the inaugural "King of the Beach" contest — a gauntlet of about 16 events including sand sprints and weight ball tosses — to cap the eight weeks.
The team’s pride in fitness is symbolized in a new perpetual trophy bowl with Amis’ name on it in the UH basketball office.
"He has a great background," Amis said of McMillian. "He knows what you need to work on, what strengthening you need to do to get better. It’s good to have someone who’s been through the grind (of basketball seasons)."
Sophomore forward Joston Thomas, a native of Washington, D.C., was first taken aback by the unfamiliar beach training, then grew to appreciate it.
"It did help a lot. Conditioning our legs, stamina," he said. "That was a different type of feeling for me because I never ran in sand before. So I feel like it helped a lot, I’m a little more athletic than I was when I first came in, so I think it’s big."
To a man, the team saw progress in fitness testing in categories like vertical leaps, bench presses and agility drills. Now the team has weightlifting sessions three times a week in what McMillian calls a maintenance phase.
He thought sophomore center Vander Joaquim made the biggest strides, though he said everyone has improved.
Those beach drills were punishing, but rewarding — as the five mystery starters in tonight’s exhibition can attest.