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‘Bows find there’s ‘D’ in identity

Brian McInnis
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Joston Thomas, left, and Bill Amis are part of the Rainbows' rim-protection unit.

It was a troubling case of identity theft for the Hawaii men’s basketball team.

Early in the Western Athletic Conference season, the Rainbow Warriors had their defensive pride robbed by trigger-happy opponents, falling to 0-5 in WAC after losing 82-64 at New Mexico State on Jan. 13.

But the Rainbows didn’t forget who they are. They clamped down two days later at Louisiana Tech, yielding just more than half the points of the previous game in a 56-48 win.

That victory started UH’s current three-game winning streak heading into tomorrow’s matchup against WAC leader Utah State at the Stan Sheriff Center.

"(Defense) was our identity at the beginning of the year, then we got away from it those five games," UH senior forward Bill Amis said. "But I think we’re getting our identity back as a good defensive team."

These victories and the manner in which they were accomplished — over LaTech, Fresno State and San Jose State — restored the ‘Bows’ defensive swagger present throughout the nonconference season, when they went 9-3.

Overall, UH leads the WAC and ranks 13th in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (.381), which is significantly better than last season’s .452.

During the winning streak, UH has allowed an average of 53.6 points a game in limiting the three opponents to 32.2 percent shooting from the field.

UH coach Gib Arnold attributed that improvement to a second wind. He said fatigue weighed on his team during a difficult five-game stretch from immediately after the Diamond Head Classic through the New Mexico State game. That lack of energy robbed the Rainbows of their ability to play effective defense. But about the time they returned home for the current three-game homestand, they caught their breath.

"Defense is, you gotta say, 80 percent just effort, hustle. And then the other 20 percent of that is technique," said Arnold, who prefers man-to-man but throws in doses of zone. "I think the guys have been able to bring a lot of effort, and they stayed to the game plan these last couple games."

That could be explained for a few reasons. Most notably, Amis returned to form three games after coming off his stress fracture injury. Then there was the emergence of midseason addition Miah Ostrowski as a viable player, easing the sting of Anthony Salter and Jordan Coleman leaving the team in the fall. And UH’s most recent addition, former Utah guard Jace Tavita, helped round out the scout team and keep the rotation players fresher during practices.

Practice is where defense starts every day for the Rainbows. It’s something Arnold carried with him from the College of Southern Idaho, his previous head coaching stop.

UH typically opens a practice with a drill called Warrior Slides, which at first glance doesn’t appear strenuous or difficult until the competition factor comes into play. In a zigzag pattern, the players must quickly do defensive slides in order to touch hands in time with their partner, who is doing the same thing along the opposite sideline.

After that comes the Shell Drill. A group of five Rainbows must hold a defensive formation while another group of five circulates the ball around the halfcourt, not looking to shoot but to make the defenders shift. The UH coaches make sure the players keep up intensity on defense for the duration. It can be draining, but now the ‘Bows are used to it.

The Rainbow Warrior to make perhaps the greatest strides defensively from the start of the season until now is junior guard Zane Johnson. Though still more of a scorer, he’s learned how to better use his 6-foot-6 length to bother shorter shooting guards. He showed it against San Jose State when he helped limit senior guard Adrian Oliver — then the third-leading scorer in the country at 24.2 points per game — to 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting.

"I dunno, it seems like something just clicked and now I actually enjoy playing defense," Johnson said. "I used to HATE playing defense. Now I actually enjoy playing it and, I think part of it is, we play defense all day. It’s finally catching on with me, and I realize now that defense does win ballgames. It’s not just offense."

A close second to Johnson in defensive improvement is sophomore center Vander Joaquim. The 6-10 Joaquim wasn’t blocking many shots until recently, but took a challenge from Arnold to heart. He’s notched seven blocks over the past three games, and might have swatted more than the two he was officially credited with against San Jose State. He, Amis and Joston Thomas are the team’s rim protectors.

"Coach wants us to block shots … we gotta start," Joaquim said. "When he told me that, I just got focused. Every time I get in the game I’ll be thinking about it. First I was thinking about rebounding, now shot blocking. One thing at a time."

That will be important against Utah State, which is second in the WAC in field-goal defense at .386 and possesses a low-post threat in senior forward Tai Wesley.

But most important, the Rainbows know who they are again. Pregame introductions will be a mere formality.


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