Hawaii will be making their first appearance in the tournament since 2002. It's just their fifth time making the field in program history. They're still looking for their first victory.
To change that, they'll have to go through the fourth-seeded Bears. Cal may be one of the most talented teams in the country. All five of their starters average more than 10 points per game. Freshmen duo Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb will most likely be taken during the lottery during the NBA Draft in June.
Senior Tyrone Wallace leads the team in scoring (15.3 ppg), assists (4.4 apg), and steals (1.0 spg). Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird both shoot over 40% from three-point range. Off the bench, Cuonzo Martin will call upon two seven-footers - Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh - guard Sam Singer, and wing Stephen Domingo.
The Bears started off the season somewhat slow. They were 10-3 in non-conference with all three losses coming away from their home arena, Haas Pavilion. Their best win was a narrow one at home over Saint Mary's. The struggles continued in the first half of Pac-12 play, starting off 4-5. The story continued: all four wins at home and all five losses on the road.
But then the Bears hit their stride once the calendar turned to February. They finished the season winning nine of their last 11, including four games not played in Berkeley.
So what are the Bows' chances in pulling the upset? Pretty good, really. KenPom slots them as four-point underdogs with a 32% chance of winning the game, the highest of any of the 13 seeds. Historically, 13 seeds win their first round game about 20% of the time.
Hawaii won't be quite as intimidated by all of the Bears' height as many mid-majors would be. The Bows have enough size themselves between the Stefans - Jankovic and Jovanovic. Not to mention, they match up against the massive UC-Irvine front line multiple times a year. The Bows won both matchups with the Anteaters this season.
The biggest key to success for Hawaii will be nothing new: they need to generate their offense with their defense. The Bows are at their best when they're creating turnovers and getting out in transition. Cal is a team that's susceptible to turning the ball over. They gave it away at the third-highest rate in the Pac-12.
Scoring in the half court against the Bear defense can be a real chore. They claim the best interior defense in the country. Teams shoot about 8% lower on two-point field goals against the Bears than the national average. In addition to that, teams don't get many open three-pointers off of their regular halfcourt offense.
Turnovers will be key for the Bows defense, but so will stopping penetration. Allowing Brown, Wallace, and Singer to consistently get in the paint is a recipe for disaster. When they get inside, they can score, get to the line, or pass out to Bird and Mathews for open jumpers. That's when their offense becomes nearly impossible to defend.
The matchup to watch will be Stefan Jankovic against Ivan Rabb. Jankovic is the one Hawaii player who has true next-level talent to match Cal's semi-pro starting lineup. The 6-11 Big West POTY scores inside and out, he blocks shots, and leads the team in rebounds. Rabb is certainly talented and athletic, but he had his struggles guarding Oregon center Chris Boucher this season, a player with a similar offensive game to Jankovic. But Rabb's no slouch to guard either and Jankovic will need to avoid getting himself in foul trouble like he did against Long Beach State in the Big West championship game.
I've seen more than a couple "expert" brackets out there taking Hawaii to advance. Some of them even have the Bows making the second weekend. I'll be doing the same in my bracket. While Hawaii can't match the Bears talent, they're really not that far off. They play with a confidence and swagger that gives off the impression that they think they're as good as anyone.
The NCAA Tournament tends to favor those that can win on the road. I've already outlined Cal's struggles this season away from home. Nobody in the country has to deal with the travel demands that Hawaii does. Everyone in their conference is at least a five hour flight away and they went 10-1 against Big West teams in games not on the island.
Also, I don't think you can talk about this game without mentioning what's been going on in the Cal program this week. They had an assistant coach fired on Monday for reasons I'll let you read about for yourself. Who knows what the Bears' mindset will be.
I'll take the Bows in a tight one.
Hawaii 75, California 71