Defense Could Define the 2021 Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic

By Brian McInnis

The Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic is back after a one-year hiatus due to coronavirus pandemic uncertainties, and its eight-team field could be one of the strongest overall in the tournament’s 12-year history.

Besides host Hawaiʻi, there are two returnees to the eight-team event — BYU (fifth place, 2015) and Northern Iowa (sixth place, 2015).

Defense could define the 2021 edition of the tournament; five in the field were in the top 50 of 350 Division I teams in field-goal percentage defense as of Dec. 4 this year, and four were among the top 50 in fewest points allowed.


BYU Cougars

Conference: West Coast

Head Coach: Mark Pope

Season Synopsis: Pope was determined to test the mettle of his promising team.

The Cougars rattled off six straight wins to open the season – their best start since 2010-11 – none more impressive than an 81-49 throttling of then-No. 12 Oregon in the Phil Knight Invitational on Nov. 16. BYU followed that up with a 75-64 win at rival Utah and elevated to No. 12, only to fall to Pope’s former team, Utah Valley, 72-65 in overtime on Dec. 1.

For the Cougars, the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic caps a challenging stretch of eight of nine games away from Provo. However, as of the start of December, they had yet to lose back-to-back regular-season games under Pope in his three seasons as Head Coach.

BYU features a dual point guard look in its spread pick-and-roll motion offense with seniors Te’Jon Lucas and Alex Barcello. Barcello, a returning West Coast Conference first-teamer, is on pace to be BYU’s 12th member of the 50-40-90 percentages club since 1993, while shouldering the scoring load at 18.3 points per game as of Dec. 2.

Lucas, a sixth-year point guard at his third D-I stop, ranked 28th in the country in assists per game at 5.4.

The Cougars have turned to their defense and rebounding to set the tone.

BYU entered December No. 14 nationally in rebounding margin at plus-10.1, No. 16 in offensive rebounds per game at 14.2 and No. 36 in field-goal percentage defense at 38.1%.

The team absorbed a tough blow against UVU, as senior forward Gavin Baxter (8.8 ppg, 65% shooting) went down with a season-ending knee injury. Center Richard Harward has also been unavailable, meaning the Cougars’ available frontcourt is very young.

Note: Former BYU guard Chase Fischer made the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic all-tournament team in 2015 and still holds tournament records with his 41 points and nine 3-pointers against New Mexico.


Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

Conference: Big West

Coach: Eran Ganot

Season synopsis: The host team will hope that its participation in two tournaments already in 2021-22 will make a difference in its signature multi-team holiday event.

Hawaiʻi had a 2-1 showing in its season-opening Outrigger Hotels Rainbow Classic and split a pair of games in the Las Vegas Classic during Thanksgiving Week. It dropped a 70-58 decision at Santa Clara to complete that three-game road trip and an up-and-down, 3-3 November.

A quirk of the 2021-22 schedule was a two-week layoff from games before the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic; UH’s Dec. 8 matchup with Division II Hawaii Pacific University was the team’s most recent action.

Two statistics have stood out so far for UH: its rebounding margin, which at plus-9.1 ranked No. 23 nationally at the start of December, and its proclivity for getting to the foul line, at 17.5 times per game, compared to 10.7 per game for opponents.

Texas transfer Kamaka Hepa, a 6-10, 215-pound forward, was the signature pickup going into Ganot’s seventh season. Through six games, the versatile Hepa averaged 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game on 47.5% shooting (44.4% on 3-pointers).

Two sophomores to make strides in the offseason, center Bernardo da Silva and guard Noel Coleman, dealt with injuries a few games into the season but are expected to eventually return. They were UH’s scoring leaders at the time they went out, at 15.3 and 12.5 points per game, respectively. Junior wing Junior Madut has been the most consistent performer otherwise, at 11.3 ppg.

While shooting and playmaking have occasionally lapsed in its four-out offense, UH has shown the ability to claw out of a big deficit; it nearly came all the way back from 26 points down in an 81-78 loss to Northern Colorado in the second game of the season.

Note: Hawaii is 17-14 all-time in Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic games, with its best finishes being third place in 2013 and 2014.


Liberty Flames

Conference: Atlantic Sun

Coach: Ritchie McKay

Season synopsis:  Liberty Arena, the Flames’ 4,000-seat venue, has been a true comfort zone. Liberty’s 66-45 win over Missouri on Dec. 2 was its 39th straight at home going back to Feb. 2, 2019, the second-longest active streak in the country.

But now the Flames play about as far away as possible from Lynchburg, Virginia.

As the adage goes, defense travels. That could bode well for McKay’s group, who entered December No. 6 nationally in points allowed at 55.0 and No. 29 in field-goal percentage defense at 37.7% to go with a grinding halfcourt style on offense.

Since McKay returned to Liberty in 2015 from a stint at Virginia under Tony Bennett, the Flames have adhered to the same Pack Line defensive principles as the Cavaliers.

Offensively, the Flames can heat up in a hurry with a prolific, if undersized, floor leader in 5-foot-9 senior guard Darius McGhee. The returning Atlantic Sun player of the year put up 18.6 points per game through the first seven contests of 2021-22 – No. 60 among all Division I players – and, with his quick trigger and deep range, had attempted more than twice as many field goals as his closest teammate, at nearly 16 per game.

As McGhee has gone, so has Liberty; he shot 50% from the field in wins over Regent University, Bethune-Cookman, Maryland-Eastern Shore, and Missouri, but 31.1% in losses to LSU, Iona and Manhattan.

McGhee’s right-hand man is Keegan McDowell, one of the most lethal 3-point shooters in the country. His long-distance percentage of 48.7 (18-for-37) through seven games ranked No. 19 nationally.

But it’s 6-7 forward Kyle Rode who often keys the Flames’ attack. Rode, the team leader in assists, has the ability to dissect defenses with his passing from the top of the arc.

Note: Liberty is the second Atlantic Sun team to participate in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic; East Tennessee State competed in the 2012 tournament.


Northern Iowa Panthers

Conference: Missouri Valley

Coach: Ben Jacobson

Season synopsis: The Panthers of Northern Iowa arrive in Honolulu battle-tested following a harrowing November that saw them acquit themselves well on the road against top-25 opponents Arkansas and St. Bonaventure.

The Panthers fell 93-80 to the No. 16 Razorbacks on Nov. 17, a game that featured 18 lead changes, and followed that with a 90-80 upset of to the Bonnies, also No. 16 at the time, 10 days later.

There were two close losses, by four points to Nicholls State in the season opener and by two at Bradley – on a buzzer-beating layup – in UNI’s Missouri Valley opener on Dec. 1.

Jacobsen, the dean among coaches in the 2021 Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic in his 16th year in Cedar Falls, has three starters back from his 2020 Missouri Valley championship team – most notably junior guard AJ Green, who is healthy and leading the way after missing all but three games of 2020-21 with a hip injury.

Through six games, Green was in the top 75 in national scoring at 18.2 points per game, and No. 14 in 3-pointers made per game at 3.7. He erupted for a career-high-tying 35 points on 11-for-18 shooting (9-for-15 on 3s) in the win over St. Bonaventure.

Senior guard Trae Berhow and junior forward Austin Phyfe are the other holdovers from the 2020 team that won 25 games. Both contributed 8.3 ppg through the first six games.

The Panthers are not huge – no one on the roster stands taller than 6-9 – but they don’t have to be. They are lethal from distance, entering December No. 18 nationally in made 3s per game at 10.8 and No. 36 in 3-point percentage at 38.9%. Six players are shooting 40% or better from long range, led by Green (22-for-52, 42.3%).

UNI rebounds by committee, as no player averaged more than five boards per game entering December.

Note: UNI becomes the second Missouri Valley team to return for an encore Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic performance, after Indiana State (2012 and 2018).


South Florida Bulls

Conference: American Athletic

Coach: Brian Gregory

Season synopsis: A dramatic offseason roster makeover meant the 2021-22 nonconference season is an ideal time to come together for the Tampa-based Bulls of South Florida.

With five of USF’s top six scorers from 2020-21, and 10 players overall lost to the transfer portal, an infusion of seven from the portal was necessary for the fifth-year coach Gregory.

Second-year freshman guard Caleb Murphy has been the constant. Through seven games, he’s led the way with 12.7 points per game on a team-best 46.3% conversion rate from the field, without a single 3-point make.

Murphy has also been the top distributor in the Bulls’ pick-and-roll-heavy offense, with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Points have come at a premium for both USF and its opponents. The Bulls entered December No. 8 nationally in points allowed at 55.8 and 35th in 3-point percentage allowed at 27.1%.

Guard Javon Greene, a super senior transfer from George Mason, has embodied the defensive effort, having collected better than two steals a game through the first seven contests.

But the Bulls have put up only 56.4 points on average themselves, resulting in plenty of rock-fight-style contests, with the notable exception a 21-point win over Bethune-Cookman in the season opener.

The best-played game of the season thus far for USF could actually be a loss on Nov. 19; an upset of then-No. 21 Auburn was within reach down to the final minutes before the Bulls fell 58-52. South Florida led for the entire first half and took a seven-point lead into intermission.

A dose of heartbreak was in the cards to begin December, too. Leading by two in the final seconds, visiting South Carolina State pulled off a stunner with a difficult corner 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left to emerge with a 65-64 win.

The Bulls had another tough test just before departing for Honolulu, with Florida on the docket in the Orange Bowl Basketball Classic on Dec. 18.

Note: USF is the third member of the AAC to participate in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic; Houston won the tournament in 2019 and Tulsa went 1-2 in 2016.


Stanford Cardinal

Conference: Pac-12

Coach: Jerod Haase

Season synopsis: Can five-star recruit Harrison Ingram take Stanford to new heights under Haase?

The arrival of Ingram, a 6-7 forward from Dallas, marked the second straight year a McDonald’s All-American became a Cardinal, a program first. Haase, in his sixth year, has compiled a top-25 recruiting class in three of the last four years.

In the first seven games of 2021-22, Ingram put up 12.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game, the team leader in the first two categories and a shade off the lead in the third. At that point in the season, he was the only freshman in the country with such averages.

Through seven games, senior guard Jaden Delaire, last season’s Pac-12 Most Improved Player, contributed 10.1 points on 46% shooting.

Maples Pavilion meant everything for the Cardinal through early December, as it won all four games at home (Tarleton State, San Jose State, Valparaiso, and North Carolina A&T) by double digits, while losing its first three road games (Santa Clara, Baylor, Colorado).

The constant for the Cardinal has been its rebounding; it entered December ranked No. 21 nationally in rebounding margin at plus-9.3.

Haase has turned to his bench frequently, as 10 players have contributed 3.9 points per game or more.

Note: The Pac-12 has been the most frequently represented league in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, with a conference member participating every year of the event except 2011. USC (twice) and Arizona own Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic championship trophies.


Vanderbilt Commodores

Conference: SEC

Coach: Jerry Stackhouse

Season synopsis: Year 3 of the Stackhouse era in Nashville could be the Commodores’ most promising to date under the former NBA star, but there remains much to prove before the start of SEC play.

Vanderbilt got off to a 5-1 start through six games by leaning on its defense – it entered December No. 7 nationally in points allowed at 55.2, No. 9 in field-goal percentage defense at 35.8% shooting allowed, and No. 38 in turnover margin at plus-4.5.

Offensively, Stackhouse calls upon a one-two punch in Preseason SEC Player of the Year Scotty Pippen Jr. – son of the former Dream Teamer – and an improved Jordan Wright to lead Vandy’s four-out offense. Pippen and Wright paced the ‘Dores through six games, at 14.8 points per game apiece.

Wright, Tyrin Lawrence, Jamaine Mann and Quentin Millora-Brown have operated efficiently; each is shooting 50% or better from the field.

Vandy’s signature win through early December was a 68-52 decision at Pittsburgh, in which six ‘Dores scored eight points or more. Other victories over Alabama State, Texas State, Winthrop and Mississippi Valley State came by 14 points or more.

The lone setback over the first month was a 48-37 decision to VCU on Nov. 17, in which the Commodores were held to 22.6% shooting.

There is surely room for improvement. The 6-3, third-year sophomore Pippen has not yet approached his 2020-21 output of 20.8 points per game, the Vandy sophomore scoring record. His best output on the young season was 30 points on 10-for-17 shooting against Texas State; he didn’t surpass 15 points among the remaining first six games and was held to eight against VCU.

Seven-foot transfer Liam Robbins, who led the Big Ten in blocks per game (2.7) at Minnesota last season, had yet to make his season debut while recovering from a foot injury.

Testers against SMU, Temple and Loyola Chicago remained before the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.

Note: This is the return of the SEC to the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic after a four-year absence, not including 2020, when the tournament was nixed due to the pandemic threat. No SEC team has appeared in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic title game; South Carolina has the best showing to date, at third place in 2013.


Wyoming Cowboys

Conference: Mountain West

Coach: Jeff Linder

Season synopsis: Behind one of the top-scoring duos in the country, Linder has the 3-ball-happy Cowboys looking like a serious threat in the Mountain West in his second year in Laramie.

Through seven games, Wyoming could do no wrong with sophomore forward Graham Ike (21.1 points per game) and senior guard Hunter Maldonado (18.7 ppg). The 7-0 start was the program’s best since 2014-15.

Wyoming, which was picked to finish eighth in the MWC preseason poll, notched early season true road wins over Washington, Grand Canyon and Cal State Fullerton, and had another opportunity to make a statement at Arizona on Dec. 8.

As of Dec. 4, it was one of 13 remaining undefeated teams among 350 in NCAA Division I. The Cowboys average margin of victory in its first four games at the Arena-Auditorium was 35 points.

While they are known for prolific takes and makes from long range under Linder, the Pokes are doing it on both sides of the ball.

They entered the month No. 7 in field-goal percentage at 51.1%, No. 27 in 3-point percentage at 39.2%, No. 28 in scoring offense at 82.7 ppg, and No. 43 in 3-pointers per game at 9.9.

Against Hastings College on Nov. 26, the Cowboys tied an NCAA record by draining 28 3s.

Meanwhile, they are No. 12 in field-goal percentage defense at 36.2% and No. 32 in points allowed at 59.1.

Ike and Maldonado have been the unquestioned top threats – they were the only teammates to place in the top 60 nationally in scoring average – but the entire starting lineup averages double-figure scoring. Guard Drake Jeffries (12.6 ppg), forward Jeremiah Oden (10.4) and guard Xavier DuSell (10.3) are all capable shot-makers.

Maldonado has parlayed that into one of the highest assist averages in the country (5.5). Meanwhile, Ike is among the national leaders in free throws attempted, getting there more than seven times per game.

Jeffries has been a flamethrower from behind the arc, ranking No. 9 in the country in 3s made per game at 3.9 and No. 2 in 3-point accuracy at 57.4% (27-for-47).

Note: Wyoming is the sixth different Mountain West team to play in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic, second only to the Pac-12 (seven teams) for the most varied member participation in the event’s history. San Diego State won it in 2016.