Hawai’i men’s basketball embarks on tour of Japan

Paul Brecht - The Sporting Tribune
Hawai’i men’s basketball added some new faces to a large returning cast with expectations as the ‘Bows head to Japan for their second international tour under head coach Eran Ganot.

HONOLULU — Newest Rainbow Warrior men’s basketball signee Akira Jacobs is racking up the frequent flyer miles these days.

Less than 10 days after departing to join his UH teammates in the islands, Jacobs will head directly back to Japan; this time accompanied by his newest teammates for an 11-day international tour of the country that will see the ‘Bows play four scrimmages.

For the six-foot-eight freshman, it will be just another notch in the belt of a productive summer of hoops. He showed off impressive scoring flashes during the FIBA U19 World Cup in Hungary, averaging the fifth-most points per contest of all participants (17.0 ppg). He paced the squad with 20 points on 42 percent shooting from 3-point territory in Japan’s quarterfinal loss to Team USA.

“It was good to play against a lot of already Division I players. I think it was good preparation for college basketball,” Jacobs said of his World Cup experience. “The physicality, the speed, the athleticism… I think I’ll be able to implement that experience to on the court here.”

Born in Yokohama, Jacobs is the first UH men’s basketball signee from Japan. According to the wing, he didn’t know about the trip until after he had committed to play for the ‘Bows.

“I was told [about the Japan trip] a few days after I committed,” Jacobs smiled telling reporters Monday. “Even before learning about the trip, Hawai’i just felt like the place for me, overall. [The trip] was just kind of like the cherry on top.”

While he came in a few days later to practice than the rest of the roster, Jacobs has adjusted quickly while being thrown straight into the fire. Part of the quick adjustment can be credited to his teammates, the guard/forward admitted.

“Everyone here on this team is super cool, super nice. As soon as I got here, it felt like I’d known them forever,” he said of his first few days around the team.

In preparation for a Japan trip that will include stops in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Chiba and will see the ‘Bows play four exhibition games against varying levels of Japanese teams (both amateur and professional), the ‘Bows were allotted an extra ten practices leading up to their departure date.

While there are nine returners from last year’s roster that fell in overtime of the Big West tournament quarterfinals, the ‘Bows have five new faces on the team that expect to compete for minutes this season.

Among those five, two graduate transfers in Matthue Cotton and Justin McKoy are expected to be in the mix from day one for important rotation minutes.  

Cotton, who comes from Yale with three NCAA tournament appearances on his resumé, has been lighting it up from long distance in recent practices. The southpaw missed all last season after undergoing left shoulder surgery but appeared in all 61 games the two seasons prior. He has looked quick of the dribble in practices and showed off some casual bounce on Monday with media in attendance.

McKoy comes to the islands to join forces with an old friend in ‘Bows guard Juan Munoz. The two were high school teammates at Panther Creek in North Carolina, where McKoy ended his career as the program’s all-time leader in points. The six-foot-eight forward joins Hawai’i after stops with a pair of ACC powerhouses in Virginia and UNC, appearing in two NCAA tournaments during his time on the east coast. 

Munoz is a new face in his own right despite being on the team for the last two years. The sharpshooter suffered a pair of injuries that would hold him out for each of the last two seasons before being green lit for an eighth year of eligibility by the NCAA. He has slowly been ramping up contact and intensity as he looks to finally suit up for the ‘Bows in a regular season game this year. 

Jacobs is just one of three first-year students joining the Rainbow Warriors this season, as New Zealand-born slasher Tom Beattie and Logan Robeson, a guard from California, round out the freshmen on the roster.

Beattie comes to Hawai’i after a late-cycle offer and solid relationship with UH assistant coach Brad Davidson, who was scouting the New Zealand national tournament when he came across the elite combo guard from Auckland. Standing at six-foot-five, Beattie offers positional versatility for the Rainbow Warriors and has starred for the U19 national team from New Zealand before coming to college. 

The ten practices have “been like games” at times, according to coaches. With players competing for spots, intensity levels from drills to live scrimmages are at an encouraging level already. There has also been a focus on playing faster, using shortened shot clocks during practice to simulate pushing the tempo. That has been a stated goal for the ‘Bows as they try to capitalize on an elite defense with a complimentary offense.

With higher goals in mind after last season and a restocked roster, Hawai’i hopes to use the international tour to gain chemistry with one another on and off the court. With the inclusion of Jacobs, the entire 2023-24 roster will go on the trip and get an opportunity to bond together. 

“The reality is that the ten practices, the travel together, the hotel, the bus, the bullet train coming up, those are just different bonding experiences. Each group forms their own identity, their own personality,” head coach Eran Ganot said of building chemistry. “The blueprint is pretty similar, about team, about sharing… now we bring some newcomers, and we’ll add their personalities to the group and then, this group finds their own as they go through the up-and-downs and the trials and tribulations.”

The 11-day trip for Hawai’i’s men’s basketball team is the second international trip that the program has taken under the watch of Ganot. When he took over in 2015, Ganot felt a desire to mimic “what the best are doing” by taking an international trip every four years, which is the mandated time between trips per NCAA rules.

While Ganot mentioned wanting Hawai’i to be “a national program”, it can also be said that the ‘Bows are international. The 14 players on this season’s team hail from eight different countries and six continents, so a general appreciation for other cultures is shared throughout the roster. 

“It’s funny because a lot of times when people have international players, they have two or three from the same country and over the years we’ve mixed it up,” Ganot said with a proud smile. “You can see that in this group, eight different countries… two from Australia, [one from] New Zealand, Serbia, Japan, Senegal, Brazil, Belgium and two from North Carolina, by the way.” 

Despite the vast collection of life experiences, just two members of the program have ever been to Japan. Other than Jacobs, assistant coach Cody Kelley, who joined the staff this offseason, is the only other person to have experienced the culture in Japan. For most of the UH men’s basketball team, the experience is a new one.

“Everybody has a great thing, and everybody can learn from each other, and that’s what [the international trip] is about,” said Ganot. “I’m excited… It’ll be a life-changing experience for everyone that gets to go.”