Coach Taylor already getting the most out of his young team

They’ve had every reason to mail it in. Instead, the ‘Bows have decided to reject all the negativity and adversity, and to start building something of their own. The University of Hawaii’s men’s basketball team returns to the Stan Sheriff Center this week sporting a 6-2 record that seems like a fairy tale after what it’s been through already in this young season.

A murky firing, an ineligibility determination for its best player and a collection of unproven pieces made the 2014-15 season seem destined for disaster, but UH already has a win over Pittsburgh and flew all the way to Florida for a pair of holiday victories.

Interim head coach Benjy Taylor is making believers out of the naysayers, getting the most out of his inexperienced team in the early going. Without four of the five starters from last year’s 20-win team, Taylor is pressing all the right buttons as different faces continue to take the lead role each night. The player making the biggest leap from last year’s contributors is sophomore Aaron Valdes.

Used regularly off the bench but given minimal minutes last season, Valdes is becoming the team’s best all-around player. He is already replacing what Isaac Fotu had been expected to provide, averaging 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest. Valdes played just 285 minutes all of last season and should hit that number within the next couple of games, but he’s showing a versatility that even last year’s team lacked. At just 6-foot, 5-inches tall, Valdes wouldn’t be a guy you’d think would haul down 16 rebounds in a game, but he did just that in Hawaii’s 62-55 win over Marist on Tuesday. He followed that up with a 15-point, nine-rebound, three-assist display in the team’s most recent 75-73 win over East Carolina on Wednesday.

Senior shooting guard Garrett Nevels, the team’s only returning starter, hasn’t shot the ball as well as he did last year, but his rebounding rate is up over 50 percent as he’s been showing the effort and leadership incumbent on a veteran. Nevels will find his three-point stroke soon enough. He’s just better than a 28 percent shooter from beyond the arc and even at that percentage, he’s scoring 12.6 points a night.

Those two have been the alpha dogs, but it’s the emergence of a number of newbies that has allowed UH to get off to the quick start. Sophomore swing man Negus Webster-Chan is becoming a major weapon from the perimeter. Averaging nine points and a shade under five boards, Webster-Chan has knocked down nine threes in the past four contests.

Junior point guard Roderick Bobbitt (9.8 points, 5.4 assists per game) is starting to fill the void left by transfer Keith Shamburger. He notched a rare triple-double (12 points, 10 assists, 10 steals) against UH-Hilo and is coordinating the offense for a team starting to move the ball much better than its experience would typically indicate.

Sophomore forward Mike Thomas is providing some physicality and his increasing minutes show that Taylor is noticing. He looks to be the closest thing to a player from whom you know what you’ll get on a night-in, night-out basis. He’ll play about 22 to 24 minutes, score an efficient 10 points and grab five or six rebounds. Not eye-catching, but necessary.

Freshman guard Isaac Fleming seems like a keeper. He’ll have an up-and-down year like most freshmen, but he was in double-figures for three straight games, including a season-high 15 in the upset over Pitt.

Nobody would have imagined this team would have six wins at this point. They’re showing that outside influences and distractions can be kept outside if a team sticks together. They’re not as polished as last season, but they’ve already grown quite a bit in not even a month. Coach Taylor deserves a lot of credit for ignoring the critics and coaching up his young team. They obviously believe in themselves and that’s cultivating a greater belief in Taylor.

The ‘Bows host a Delaware State (3-3) team on Tuesday that just upset Wake Forest, before taking on BYU, Saturday in Utah.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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