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Sea Warriors’ Serbian Transfer Sparks Early Basketball Play

Saturday afternoon’s PacWest Conference game between Brigham Young-Hawaii and Hawaii Pacific may the first league contest for both, but expect a playoff-type atmosphere, given the competitive history between the two over the years.

If anything, Saturday’s game will give the winner a jump on the league race with the bulk of the remaining PacWest slate to be played out in January and February. A preview of Hawaii Pacific follows:

HPU – 2012-13 season at a glance: Hawaii Pacific went 11-15 overall (6-12 in the PacWest) last season.

Head coach: Darren Vorderbruegge (sixth season at HPU)

Star-watch: University of Nevada transfer Marko Cukic has been a fine addition to the Sea Warriors, as evidenced by his play in HPU’s first two games as well as three exhibitions. A native of Belgrade, Serbia, Cukic brings size with his 6-foot-9, 235-pound frame and should be an imposing defensive presence. Offensively, he also is off to a good start, having averaged 9.5 points and seven rebounds per game to date. That included a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds to go with four assists) recorded in HPU’s loss to Central Washington last week.

Star-watch II: Like Cukic, sophomore guard Malte Ziegen-hagen has quickly emerged as a player to watch in the conference. A transfer from Division I Tulane University, Ziegenhagen is HPU’s leading scorer in the early-going of 2012-13, with an average of 14.5 points per game and is third overall in minutes played among his teammates.

Also on everyone’s radar:

One of few veterans, having been a two-year starter, senior Jelany White is poised for a solid senior season. He’s already established himself as the Iron Man on the HPU roster, averaging a team-high 34 minutes a game to date to go with 10 points and four assists. White also has made good on all three of his 3-point attempts this year. The Los Angeles native’s leadership should figure big on a team with several new players.

Must-watch game 1: Jan. 14 versus Chaminade (at Moanalua High School). While this is always a significant game on the HPU slate, Chaminade’s win over Big Twelve Conference member Texas at the Maui Invitational last week automatically places the Silverswords among the league favorites, along with Dixie State, Grand Canyon and BYUH, and adds to the magnitude of this contest. To stay in PacWest contention, HPU will likely need to win most if not all of its league home games. The Sea Warriors also will meet Chaminade a second time in their regular-season finale March 2 at McCabe Gym.

Must-watch game II: Feb. 15 versus BYUH (at the Blaisdell Arena). With the success Ken Wagner has had at BYUH through the years, the argument can be made that the PacWest title always runs through Laie. Indeed, to be a factor in the race, the Sea Warriors will likely need to gain at least a split in the series with the Seasiders, who have been HPU’s biggest nemesis in recent years. As this game will be played at home, HPU followers can safely put this encounter into the “must win” category.

Key road game: There’s perhaps no bigger opportunity for HPU than its Feb. 23 matchup with Dixie State in St. George, Utah, to make a statement on the road. The Red Storm is picked to win the league in pre-season and has lived up to that hope to date. Winning on the road is a tough task in the PacWest, given the extreme travel, but a win here would be a huge boost for the Sea Warriors to help stay in the mix for a league title. Two days earlier, HPU also will have played an equally important road game at Grand Canyon.

Game to be on upset-alert for: Versus Champion Baptist (at the Blaisdell Arena) Jan. 31. Long layoffs can be hard to shake off for a team when they return, and the Sea Warriors will enter this afternoon game after having been idle for the previous 12 days – their longest amount of time off between games during the season.

Fearless prediction: Look for HPU to make a leap to third place in the PacWest.