Kalani Simpson


By Kalani Simpson

New coach, but
another good team

NO yelling and no head-butting. Why don't you just tie the man's hands while you're at it?

Basketball practice is squeaks and bounces and barks. But there was surprisingly little woofing out of Riley Wallace yesterday. No, he's different now. He has Bob Nash for that. Bob Burke for that. Jackson Wheeler for that.

"In practice I'm letting these guys do a lot," Wallace says. "I have to be the enforcer, but I still let them do a lot more."

The "Bionic Man," as the Hawaii coach called himself, is "changed" now.

This is the way to do it. This is what he told his coaching colleague Bob Huggins of Cincinnati, the yellaholic who just suffered a heart attack. You've got to adapt, he told Huggs. You've got to change yourself, change your approach to coaching.

"Because I didn't, when I had the heart problem he had," Wallace said. And his recovery showed it. But this time, Wallace, no stranger to health problems now, has bounced back only weeks after doctors opened his head to take a look inside.

And he is coaching again.

And this time he is calm, very calm.

Except for passing. The coach is very passionate about passing. He'll yell then, a little.

And once, during a defensive drill.

And he hip-checked Tony Akpan to demonstrate how to get position.

And the sense of humor is still there. After Akpan and Paul Jesinskis missed several dunks: "Layups must not have been a big thing in Africa."

Yes, he's back. A team like this will do that to you. Yes, Wallace sat around, laid around, rested, healed. He had to get himself ready. He had to be ready to coach this group.

The core is coming off 27-6, off two straight trips to the dance, two straight WAC tournament titles. Yes, there is no Savo now, but this team already looks very much like last year's model, the one that made a state dream again.

Forgive me. It's much too soon to say anything like that yet. It's early.

"I like 'em, though," Wallace says.

They're fun. They're eager to learn and they already know. They make it easy for a reformed hothead to keep his cool, to enjoy being their coach. They like each other and push each other. There are already nicknames.

"You can feel that," Wallace says. "And I heard, 'my fault, my fault.' "

Good sign.

"And you hear some teaching out there, from the returnees teaching the new guys, you know."

And it just keeps rolling along. This is unbelievable. This is a golden age. After years as a, well -- "it's been a junior college program," Wallace says -- players are here for three, four, five years now. It's working now. Players are meshing. The Rainbows are reloading. Spots are filled. Beats are not missed.

WAC titles are expected. Expected!

Forget that Wallace says that next year is the one for this bunch. You already have. He already has. They've never even heard it.

This is what this team is thinking about:

"The way I look at our schedule, we can't let anything get away," Wallace says.

"People say, 'hey, play a game at a time,' the old cliché. Well, you know, we've got to think: How are we going to get -- because we've spoiled ourselves -- how are we going to get there again? One way is, don't let any games get away."

This team, these players, should be good enough to get there again. Their coach sees great things in them. Their coach, who is different now, but definitely back.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at

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