When Darius Johnson-Wilson caught a pass just outside the post, he dribbled to his left and as the defense switched, he flicked a bounce pass to Dominique Campbell for an easy layup.
It was a nice offensive move that led to a high-percentage shot — just what first-year University of Hawaii at Hilo men’s basketball coach GE Coleman hopes to see a lot of this season.
The Vulcans began their official practice Tuesday afternoon at UH-Hilo Gym and the verbal Coleman spent two hours working out the team. The 13-man squad spent most of the day playing defense and pushing the ball.
“We want to play aggressive full court pressure and tough half-court man,” said Coleman, who took over the UH-Hilo men’s program in July when longtime coach Jeff Law stepped down to accept the head coaching job at Western New Mexico University.
“We want to hang our hat on defense,” the UH-Hilo coach said. “But when we have the ball, we want to push the tempo and get quality shots.”
The Vulcans are coming off a frustrating 6-19 season, including a 3-14 record in the Pacific West Conference.
The young Coleman, 31, left as the Central Washington University associate head coach to take on the UH-Hilo job. Now, he’s hoping to turn the program around in his first stint as a head coach.
“Our goal is to compete in everything we do,” Coleman said. “We want to compete in every play in practice, in the games and in the classroom. We want to get better and see what happens. But we’re all excited to start practice and get ready for the season.
“This is a fresh start for everybody.”
Coleman, a 5-foot-5 fireball of enthusiasm, brought in 10 players to blend with five returnees. The group includes quick guards and athletic forwards but no monster in the post — a 6-foot-8 or bigger center to reject shots and intimidate penetrating opponents.
Still, Coleman likes his team’s athleticism and ability to run the floor.
“This is a good group to work with — I know we’re going to compete no matter what the final score,” the UH-Hilo coach said. “We’ve got to work on our players communicating better, but they seem willing to give the effort and only want to get better.”
Johnson-Wilson is a 6-6, 250-pound sophomore out of Hilltop, Wash., who was his league’s most valuable player as a prep player at Curtis Senior High School. He played last year at Tacoma Community College in Washington and has shed 50 pounds — a physical feat that Coleman believes makes the Vulcans power forward a better player.
“Darius has soft hands, great feet and is very skilled,” Coleman said. “He’s learning to play at his new weight and he’s added a new dimension to his game, being able to go outside to 15 feet and hit the shot as well as be effective in the post.
“He’s got a soft shooting touch and I think he’ll really help us this year. He’ll play 4 or 5, mixing it up with Jeff Perkins and our other big guys.”
Coleman said Perkins, a 6-7 junior from Seattle, is “long and athletic, and he can finish well on the break.”
“He’s an outstanding defender and should be one of our top defenders and rebounders,” the coach said.
Perkins and Campbell, a junior from Apple Valley, Calif., are UH-Hilo’s tallest players at 6-7 while returning senior Brandon Thomas and newcomers Johnson-Wilson and Kevin Dancer, a junior from Pasadena, Calif., stand 6-6.
Thomas and returning seniors Derek Owens and Lucas Swanson hope to battle for starting spots or at least contribute significant minutes this year. All started at various times for Law last season.
“Brandon does a lot of good things and should only get better,” Coleman said. “Derek and Lucas are really hard workers and lead by example. They’re the type of players you need to have a successful program. They’re more confident this year and should play important roles for us.”
Swanson and junior college transfer Yevgenjy Dyachenko give the Vulcans a pair of deadly 3-point shooters. Dyachenko, a 6-4 junior, played at Yuba College last year and led the California JCs in 3-point shooting percentage, at over 50 percent.
“Yev can really shoot it,” Coleman said.
Three other guards — 5-11 junior Darnell Williams, 5-9 junior JaMario Clayton and 6-0 junior Joey Rodriguez — will compete for playing time in the backcourt.
“Darnell is a vocal leader and plays really hard,” Coleman said. “JaMario has ultra quickness and can really defend the basketball. On offense, he can get into the lane and create or finish. Joey plays really hard and has a good basketball IQ.”
Clayton also can put the ball in the basket. He averaged 26.1 points per game at Toms River JC in New Jersey and earned All-America honors.
Rounding out the team and hoping to earn playing time are graduated senior Daniel Perry (5-11 guard, out of St. Louis High on Oahu) and freshmen Randan Berinobis (6-2 guard, Hilo High) and Ryan Mills (6-2 guard, La Jolla High in San Diego).
Coleman is assisted this year by Tyson Sturza.
The Vulcans open their season with a four-team tournament at Chaminade on Nov. 8 and 9 against St. Martin’s and Western Oregon.
One of the highlights of UH-Hilo’s schedule this season will be an exhibition game against NCAA Division I University of Hawaii on Nov. 22 on Oahu.