After a season that started with high expectations, was marred by inconsistency, and ended on a tear through the Pac-12, the Bears have finally secured an invite to the tournament, to March Madness, to the Big Dance.
To the only thing that matters.
It was announced Sunday that No. 4 seed Cal (23-10) will battle No. 13 seed Hawaii (27-5) in the first round Friday. The Bears will head to Spokane, Washington, with their highest seed ever under their belt, along with their first tourney bid since 2013.
“This is a great time of year. You work so hard to get to this point, to this position, so now it’s really about having a lot of fun,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “You know it’s win or go home, but I think they’re excited to play.”
Even before the chaos of Selection Sunday started, the Bears were heralded all over the country as the hottest team in college basketball, tallying eight wins in their last nine regular season games and a perfect home record. Cal earned a 12-6 record in conference play, tied for third, in no small part because of its lockdown defense. The Bears topped the Pac-12 in scoring defense with 67.0 points per game and opposing field goal percentage with 39.3 percent this season.
As airtight as Cal’s defense has been, the Bears have found success on the other side of the ball as well. They will have to do so, however, without senior point guard Tyrone Wallace, who fractured his right hand during practice Wednesday. Wallace, who led Cal in both assists per game with 4.4 and points per game with 15.3, will miss the NCAA Tournament, ending his Cal career. Freshman phenom Jaylen Brown, who averaged 15.0 points a game and was anointed Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and an All-Pac-12 First Team selection will largely be charged with replacing Wallace’s production, while junior guard Sam Singer will start at point guard.
“I’ve always said that we’re talented enough but again, when you have new guys, new parts that you have to gel together, it takes time and it doesn’t happen overnight,” Martin said. “Our guys worked extremely hard to continue to get better, especially on the defensive side of the ball, and they’ve made a tremendous amount of improvements.”
The Bears will have their work cut out for them against the Rainbow Warriors, who took home their first Big West Tournament title with a 64-60 win against Long Beach State on Saturday. This will be Hawaii’s first tournament appearance since 2002 and only its fifth of all time.
Though Cal emerged with some signatures victories this season, namely against Arizona and No. 1 seed Oregon, the Rainbow Warriors can’t say the same, besides a win against Northern Iowa and a narrow loss to Oklahoma. Hawaii, however, does have 6-foot-11-inch forward Stefan Jankovic, a Missouri transfer who led the team in points with 15.7, rebounds with 6.6 and field goal percentage with 55.7.
“He was at Missouri when I was at Tennessee,” Martin said. “He’s (6 feet 11 inches), can put the ball on the floor, can make shots from the perimeter, so I know he’s very talented.”
The all-around threat of Jankovic could prove to be a legitimate challenge to the Bears’ defense during the game. Jankovic, a decent shooter from beyond the arc, could draw Cal’s bigs out of the paint, helping to create open lanes for his teammates. Hawaii will also look to junior guard Aaron Valdes, a California native, who is second on the squad with a 14.6 points per game average.
“I know it’s going to be a tough game against Hawaii. We’re going to have to prove ourselves. They’re not going to give us the game,” said Cal freshman forward Ivan Rabb. “We’re going to have to take it. It’s going to be like that for every team in the tournament.”