By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
University of Hawaii at Hilo men’s basketball coach Jeff Law is optimistic about the upcoming season and his 2012-13 squad has already started a conditioning program to go along with limited individual and team workout sessions with the coaching staff.
Official practice starts Oct. 15 and the Vulcans’ first games are on the road, exhibition contests against NCAA Division I University of Pittsburgh (Nov. 2) and Duquesne University (Nov. 4) in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“Everybody is excited about making the trip and playing a Big East team,” said Law, in his 15th year with the Vulcans. “I’ve been working with (Pittsburgh coach) Jaime (Dixon) for the past five or six years to put something together and it finally came through.
“It’s going to be a great experience for our guys and when we get on the floor, we’ll probably realize we bit off too much to chew. But it’s an experience that the guys will remember for a lifetime and at the same time, they’ll learn something about themselves and get better as a team.”
The Vulcans leave Hilo on Oct. 31 and spend 12 days on the mainland, first with the trip to Pittsburgh, then back to Oregon to play in a Division II tournament hosted by Western Oregon.
“We’re going to enjoy the experience back east, then we’ll think about wins and losses when we get to Oregon,” Law said. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time together on the trip. It’s going to be a bonding kind of thing, building team chemistry. Our guys know they’re going to have to get along and play together if we’re going to be a good team.
“Looking at the guys we’ve got, I can see the potential there and glimpses of what we can be. Of course, injuries can play a part in it, but if we can stay healthy and everybody work together as a team, we should be much more competitive in the PacWest.”
Last year, the Vulcans struggled to a 9-17 overall record, including 3-15 in the rugged Pacific West Conference. Law says his 2012-13 squad has more depth at every position, especially in the backcourt.
The veteran UHH coach has five returnees, all seniors, and each either started or played significant minutes last year. They include CJ Brown, Mychael Hearn, Kiel Myers, Mike Melonas and Paul Batausa.
Brown, a 6-foot-1 point guard, averaged 5.5 points per game and had a team-high 86 assists last year.
Batausa, a 5-8 point guard, averaged 4.2 ppg and had 43 assists while sharing time at the point with Brown.
Hearn, a 6-1 guard, averaged 9.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per game; Myers, a 6-6 forward, 8.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game; and Melonas, a 6-6 forward, 6.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
“Our returning guys have worked hard and gotten better,” Law said. “And with the new guys, we’re more competitive from top to bottom.”
Solidifying the nucleus and battling the returnees for playing time are five junior college recruits. They include juniors Derek Owen and Lucas Swanson from Clark Community College in Vancouver, Wash.; junior Oxone Mavungu from Grossmont Community College in Southern California; sophomore Robert Looper from Los Angeles Valley Community College, and junior Brandon Thomas from Pierce Community College in Washington.
Owen is a 6-2 point guard who helped lead Clark to a 25-2 record and a division championship. He averaged 11 points and six assists per game.
Swanson, a 6-3 guard, averaged 11 points and four rebounds per game, teaming with Owen to give Clark a productive backcourt.
Mavungu, an athletic 6-4 forward, didn’t play last year. But the previous year at Grossmont, he was a force inside and out, averaging 16.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
Looper, a 6-8 forward, is a strong inside player who averaged 11.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game for L.A. Valley.
Two former L.A. Valley players, guards Alex Cabagnot and Ryan Abrahams, played for UHH under Law and enjoyed successful Vulcan careers.
Thomas, a 6-5 forward, sat out last year after plans to attend a small NCAA Division I program didn’t work out. But Law likes his skill set and ability to always be around the ball.
“The guys are in pretty good shape,” Law said. “Three of the guys have injuries, but the other seven are working hard. The guards are a little ahead of the big guys at this stage. Once the rest of the guys are healthy, things should even out a little more.
“But the bottom line is the team has to stay focused. The guys have to work together and if they do that, I think we’ll see the pay off on and off the court.”
Law admits last year took its toll on him and the players.
“It was a hard year and nobody had a lot of fun,” the Vulcans coach said. “But this year we’ve got a good group of guys and we’re looking to be more competitive and have a lot of fun along the way. We’re also doing a lot more stuff together as a team and hopefully it strengthens the bond between the players and they fulfill their potential.”
Law is assisted this year by Don Caffee, returning for his third season, and newcomer Zach Zepponi from California.
The young Zepponi was an assistant at Cal State San Marcos last year and previously spent three seasons as an assistant at Santa Barbara City College. Zepponi played high school basketball at Casa Grande in Petaluma, Calif. Two summers ago, Zepponi worked the Vulcans-Hawaii Basketball School with Law.
Vulcan notes: The UHH women’s basketball team, under head coach David Kaneshiro, opens its season with an exhibition game against the University of Hawaii on Oct. 26 in Honolulu. The Lady Vuls then host Chaminade University in a preseason contest on Nov. 17 in Hilo.
Kaneshiro has nine returnees and a handful of recruits to fill out his roster this season. He is assisted by Fred Collins, Wayne Kaneshiro and Donn Kansako.