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Early practices show year-over-year improvement

Throughout the 2017-18 University of Hawai’i men’s basketball team’s second official practice of the season, the key indicators showed significant year-over-year improvement.

With 71 percent of the team being returnees — including four starters plus another starter from 2016 — it was easy to identify players without the use of a roster. Gone was the awkwardness of some who were experiencing their first NCAA Division I practice last year, and so was much of the stoppages to show them proper fundamentals or positioning.

There were still several teaching moments, to be sure, but for the most part Saturday’s two-and-a-half hour, midday workout in sweltering Gym 2 was paced at second or third gear, and sometimes even fourth. As opposed to exactly a year ago, when the Warriors often found themselves stuck in first gear on Practice Day 2.

“Definitely, when you have continuity, it gets you off to a good start,” said UH coach Eran Ganot, who is in his third season at the helm. “Basically we like where we’re at right now, and we like where we’re headed, but we’ll keep working and improving. I mean, we do still have some new guys, and we have to continue to make sure those guys keep pace. But an advantage we have is that we can continue to add and grow.”

Two of this season’s key “additions” — forward Mike Thomas and guard Drew Buggs — actually had limited practice with the team last year but redshirted due to injuries. Thomas was a starter on the record-setting 2015-16 team that was the first in school history to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Both are elated to be back healthy, especially because it means they can now contribute during games.

“The only thing I can think of that was tougher (than last season) was when I broke my hip during AAU (in high school) and I couldn’t finish the AAU season,” said Thomas, a 6-foot-7 senior. “But injuries are very revealing, as far as (showing) who you are as a person and how you are able to recover, how you respond to that kind of stuff. So last year, personally for me, it was like, ‘OK, now I’ve got some time to get better.'”

Thomas did acknowledge times of feeling anxious, especially when the Warriors struggled in the course of a 14-16 rebuilding campaign.

“It was tough just watching the guys and not being able to be an example for everybody out there,” Thomas said.

Ganot said having Thomas back healthy and available for games is “huge.”

“It was a long year (for him) because you’re chomping at the bit to get out there,” Ganot said. “But he took advantage of it and you can see he’s really worked at getting into the best shape of his life and is committed to making this a tremendous senior year for him and this team. It allowed him an opportunity to sit back and look at things from a different angle. It’s improved his understanding of the game, his passing has improved, and you can see he’s a better shooter. And he’s a better leader. Mike has always found a way to improve, that hasn’t changed, and I don’t think that’ll ever change for him. He’ll always get better.”

Ganot said Buggs, a 6-2 redshirt freshman, also offers some similar maturity despite having yet to play his first college game.

“He’s a unique redshirt freshman, because he’s physically ready to go, he’s a strong power combo/point guard,” Ganot said. “And just like for Mike, last year was an opportunity for him to watch, to learn how this level is, to see how other teams play, learning the system … all those things will help him. He’s a smart kid, he wants to be good, he’s committed. His breakthrough will come when he gets Division I reps, and that will come.”

Buggs said he is eager for that chance.

“It’s most definitely exciting,” Buggs said. “Everybody wants to be on the court, everybody wants to play. Last year, I tried to use it as a learning experience, trying to learn as much as I could from the dudes who were playing — both positives and negatives — and seeing how we could be better as a team this year. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Buggs strained his right shoulder at Friday afternoon’s first practice, but was able to participate in most of Saturday’s practice with the shoulder taped up and iced during a short early break.

“I got tied up a little bit with Brocke (Stepteau) in the play; it’s just a little, slight shoulder injury,” Buggs said. “It feels better, a lot better. Just checking it and working with (trainer) Jay Goo so I can get stronger.”

Among the four newcomers is Thomas’ brother Brandon, a 6-4 sophomore transfer from Riverside (Calif.) City College. During one five-on-five drill, Brandon Thomas drove in from the left wing — splitting two defenders — before leaping and making a sweet no-look dish to brother Mike, who was under the basket and finished with the easy layup.

“We haven’t played together since I was sixth grade and he was third grade,” Mike Thomas said. “We live together, so there’s a lot of times we’ll talk about things, so it’s great.. And he’s another line of accountability for me, to keep me on a straight path, whether inside the game or outside the game. Which is great. So I’m very grateful to have my little brother here.”

1 Comment

  1. I know there are a lot of doom and gloomers out there. I think this team has a ton of potential. MT is a matchup nightmare with his versatile offensive game. I see Drammeh and Leland taking big strides this year and Buggs gives us some size at the point. Gib knows how to use his body in the post and Jack can stretch the D with this outside range. Throw in Avea and Helmsley who can lock down guys on D and Brocke has the experience to lead solid second team. No superstars but lots of good solid players. I think MT is a first team all league candidate and Gib/Purchase could garner second team all league consideration.

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