The Hawaii men’s basketball team has so far responded to adversity with flying colors. Now the Rainbow Warriors get a taste of something unusual — normalcy.
UH survived the loss of its head coach and best player in the preseason, then navigated its season-opening stretch of eight games in 13 days with a 6-2 record under Benjy Taylor. The ‘Bows opened some eyes along the way, first with a win over Pittsburgh on Maui, then by posting a 2-1 record in the Gulf Coast Showcase tournament in Florida last week.
There was rarely any time to relax in between games, or even hold a full practice.
The team returned from one of the longest road trips in program history on Thanksgiving and got some much-needed shut-eye Thursday and Friday. They were back to practice on Saturday afternoon and got in some early preparation for Tuesday’s home game against Delaware State.
"I think we surprised a lot of people," co-captain Garrett Nevels said. "We kind of surprised ourselves a little bit, honestly. You know, we gotta keep on working and keep getting better."
For the first time since the 2014-15 season got underway, UH has the luxury of multiple practice days to prepare for one opponent. It might come in handy, too.
Delaware State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference pulled off a stunner on Friday. The Hornets (3-3) are coming off a 72-65 win at Wake Forest, the first win over an Atlantic Coast Conference team in school history.
"As a staff, we had them so focused on just that (opening stretch of games)," Taylor said. "It was almost like, that was our season, kinda … We had them locked in, and just thinking, next game, next game. Just to be able to practice a couple days before a game, now we gotta readjust."
Taylor and his assistants got to work installing new sets. UH has run something of a bare-bones motion offense to this point, but the team feels the simplicity has been part of its success.
"It just goes to show you don’t need a lot, if you execute what you have," Taylor said. "There’s a lot more that we’re going to do."
Sophomore forward Aaron Valdes has exceeded expectations with team-best averages of 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 57.7 percent from the field. His efficiency has helped compensate for UH’s next three top scorers (Nevels, Roderick Bobbitt and Negus Webster-Chan), who are shooting 38.1 percent from the field.
"Coach’s given me a lot of freedom out there to play my own game, play my own style out there," Valdes said. "And I think it’s helping me a lot. I’m showing a lot of people what I can do out there."
Freshman guard Isaac Fleming played all of one minute combined in UH’s wins over Marist and East Carolina in Florida. After the tournament, Taylor said his benching of Fleming was a "coach’s decision" and didn’t elaborate.
But Fleming was a full practice participant Saturday.
"He’s good to go," Taylor said.
Through the first six games of the season, the dynamic Fleming typically was one of the first two players off the bench. He had a team-high 15 points in the win over Pitt.
Taylor said Fleming’s benching did not have to do with in-game actions.
"We’re looking for him to be Isaac, we’re looking for him to be a difference-maker on both ends of the floor," Taylor said. "It was a family issue. Team issue. Other than that, basketball-wise, we love him to death. He’s going to be fine."