Cal men’s basketball falls in opening round of NCAA Tournament to Hawaii, 77-66

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A maelstrom of unfortunate events have chipped away at the Cal men’s basketball team over the past week. Its assistant head coach, Yann Hufnagel, was dismissed from the team Monday over allegations of sexual harassment. Its starting point guard, Tyrone Wallace, injured his right hand Wednesday, ending his tournament run. And his backcourt mate, Jabari Bird, woke up Friday morning “under the weather” and could not play. This was ultimately too much for the Bears to overcome.

Despite some projections to reach the Sweet 16, Cal stumbled in the first round of the NCAA tournament, tripping against Hawaii and coming up short at the finish line, 77-66. Its 16 turnovers slowly eroded its offensive effort and were further exacerbated by allowing Hawaii to shoot 51.9 percent from the field.

“I mean, it’s tough for young guys to overcome, but for us as a staff, as men, this is life,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “And like Jordan said, you deal with these things all the time. I would rather deal with them now rather than 15, 20 years down the road. So, it’s part of it. It’s no big deal. We still have to lace them up and play the game. I think Hawaii won the game tonight. Obviously, a lot of factors, you can say this or that, but they won the game.”

The two squads went back and forth over the opening eight minutes of the game, with Cal retaining a slight edge. Despite the small lead, Wallace’s and Bird’s absences could be felt. The Bears’ offense stalled with no one to man the helm but reserve guard Sam Singer. And when the squad did get into its offense for short spurts of the first half, Hawaii was not shy to help off of Cal’s shooters. The Rainbow Warriors collapsed their defense at any sight of penetration or post entry, packing the paint and swarming Cal’s interior scorers.

Despite Hawaii’s focus on limiting points in the paint, Ivan Rabb played a convincing first half. He logged nine points and six rebounds in 18 minutes, using his length and wiry frame to score over the forest of Rainbow Warriors. The Bears looked to him time and time again when they needed buckets. And with none of the Cal perimeter players, outside of Jordan Mathews, contributing anything offensively, they looked to him early and often.

Hawaii’s willingness to double off of Cal’s wings had the most noticeable effect on Jaylen Brown. Without Wallace to feed him the ball in opportune areas, Brown often caught the ball five or six feet behind the three-point line, closer to half court. And when he tried to force the issue by putting his head down and driving, Hawaii displayed no hesitation showing help and forcing the freshman to bulldoze his way to the basket. He finished a disastrous first half with two points, three fouls and five turnovers.

The second half was no better to Cal with Martin failing to make the appropriate adjustments. Hawaii continued to deny Rabb and Brown the ball, electing to let Cal’s role players fire freely. Guard Brandon Chauca and forwards Roger Moute a Bidias and Stephen Domingo, bench players who rarely see rotational minutes in games that matter, played a combined 48 minutes and went zero for 11 from the field with three turnovers.

Center Kameron Rooks also played heavy minutes while contributing very little for Cal. In 22 minutes, he recorded just eight points and three rebounds but proved even more helpless on the defensive end. His matchup, Stefan Jankovic, went off for 16 points on only nine shot attempts despite foul trouble that limited him to 18 minutes of action. Rooks proved ill-prepared and incapable of defending the Hawaii big man, while Kingsley Okoroh quietly sat on the bench.

Cal, suffering from a myriad of injuries both superficial and internal, understandably floundered on the biggest stage in college basketball. In the absence of two of the team’s top-five scorers, Rabb and Mathews turned in one of their most impressive showings of the season while Brown turned in what is most likely his most disappointing. All eyes are on the two freshmen to announce their plans for next season, and it would not be surprising for them to declare for the 2016 NBA draft early next week.

“It’s always disappointing to lose, but it doesn’t take away from a great season,” Mathews said. “Twenty-three wins, grew a lot with these guys. So of course you’re disappointed, but you win ball games, you lose ball games. Life goes on. We had a great season.”

Winston Cho covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho