By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
It’s often the little things that determine winning or losing a basketball game.
Last week, the University of Hawaii outplayed the University of Illinois through most of their preseason contest in Honolulu, only to fall on a last-second 3-pointer by an Illini shooter in overtime.
The Rainbow Warriors blew a 16-point lead in the hard-fought battle and the little things — poor free-throw shooting, not blocking out and costly turnovers — proved to be the difference in a heartbreaking loss.
Some teams learn from their lack of attention to detail, those little things in a game that keep you in the game and give you a chance at victory. But others lack the mental discipline and tireless dedication to get better, and those teams usually find themselves in the middle of the pack or worse in a conference and wondering why they seldom win the close games.
For UH, head coach Gib Arnold has enough talent and complimentary parts, plus an impressive rebounding frontcourt, to be one of the top three or four teams in the Big West this season. But the Rainbow Warriors are going to have to improve on those little things, especially free throw shooting, if they’re going to fulfill their promise.
Last year, the University of Hawaii at Hilo struggled throughout the season and lost nine games by five points or less. The Vulcans, under veteran head coach Jeff Law, shot poorly from the free-throw line, turned the ball over in critical situations and lacked an overall maturity — call it “leadership” — to get a quality shot or key defensive stop down the stretch in those tight contests. That led to several losses in potential winnable games, a trend that must be overcome for Law’s cagers to make a big turnaround this season.
In UHH’s recent 89-80 road win over Western Oregon, the Vulcans proved that they could do the little things well, and if that can become a consistent trait with this year’s team, Law might see a dramatic improvement during the rugged Pacific West Conference season. Last year, the Vulcans were 3-15 in the league.
In the win over Western Oregon, the Vulcans placed five players in double figures, shot free throws extremely well (39 of 52 overall, 24 of 27 in the second half) and took advantage of quality possessions down the stretch to beat a solid opponent. Law called it “a team effort” and emphasized his belief that this year’s Vulcans could be a pleasant surprise if they can play together with six or seven players contributing every night.
That’s why this week’s Naniloa Volcanoes Resort’s Thanksgiving Tournament is important to Law and his players. It’s a chance to show what a difference a year can make, with five returnees and five recruits making up the nucleus of the NCAA Division II squad.
“It’s a competitive field with all of the teams pretty even,” Law said, “The games could be close and it’s going to show what we’ve learned from our season-opening road trip and what this year’s team can do against good competition.”
The Vulcans are joined in the tournament by Western New Mexico University, Montana State-Billings and Maryville University (Mo.). And you can bet those head coaches are harping on their players to do exactly what Law is telling his Vulcans: Play hard, play smart and let’s do the little things well.
And, yes, it’s still early in the season. However, what each team takes away from this week’s tournament could set the tone for the rest of the year. For the host Vulcans, it’s important to get off on the right foot and prove to themselves that they can compete with other quality D-II teams. If they can do that this week and build some team confidence, Law and Vulcan fans should have a lot more fun this time around.
Shooting advice from a legend
Hall of Fame coach Don Meyer retired in 2010 with the most wins by a men’s basketball coach with at least one stint at an NCAA member school. He coached, in order, at Hamline University, Lipscomb University and Northern Dakota University, building a tremendous winning record that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski finally surpassed in 2011 to become the alltime leader.
Meyer’s record of 923-324 in 38 years on the sideline includes both NAIA and NCAA victories. He was considered a brilliant shooting coach and often spoke at camps and clinics on the art of shooting the basketball. He struggled through a car accident and battle with cancer late in his coaching career but was always considered one of the bright minds in the country when it came to teaching basketball.
I saw Meyer speak twice and he was the kind of coach that left an impression on a young player and fellow coaches, often using a military strictness and humor to get his points across.
Back in the 1980s, I saw Meyer teach shooting at the highly respected Snow Valley Basketball Camp in Santa Barbara, Calif. He had a youngster come out to shoot jumpshots and later free throws. Then he had the young player sit down and Meyer explained to the campers the importance of proper technique and body balance as well as building good muscle-memory reflex and self-confidence to become a quality shooter.
“You don’t want to go home after this camp and tell your girlfriend you have a booger on your jumper,” Meyer said without the trace of a smile. “No one wants to have a booger on their jumpshot.”
The campers giggled, but the longtime coach made his point and laid out the exact practice plan for them to become a better shooter — and for some, a great shooter.
This week in the Vulcans’ tournament, look at the best shooters on each team and it’s a guarantee that they’ve put in the hard work on their shots over the years, learning to catch-and-shoot or drill a basket off the dribble. Like Coach Meyer told his players, shooting is an art form and if you do the right things, good things will happen.
For those guys with “boogers on their jumpshots,” it could be a long tournament and provide a few more gray hairs for their coaches.
Bill O’Rear is the longtime Hawaii Tribune-Herald sports editor, a former all-district guard for UH-Hilo, and has coached in many basketball camps over the years in Hawaii, California and Australia. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.