When the NCAA concluded its year-long investigation into University of Hawaii athletics this past December, it announced findings that carried grave consequences for the men's basketball program. Violations that occurred under former head coach Gib Arnold resulted in wide-ranging sanctions: A three-year probation period, a reduction of scholarships and a vacation of wins.
And, most crushing of all, a postseason ban.
But three months later, the Rainbow Warriors are Big West champions, carry a 27-5 record, and find themselves as a trendy 13-over-4 upset pick in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They're also the feel-good story of this year's Big Dance.
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Shortly after the penalties were announced, according to the Honolulu Star Adviser, Hawaii junior guard Aaron Valdes took to Twitter: "We still got a season to play and a NCAA tourney to make," he wrote. "This year we just have to stay focused. Either you're with us or against us."
Hawaii remained hopeful because the NCAA's ban was not for this year's postseason. It was for next year's. Unlike Louisville's self-imposed ban, a decision that was made halfway through this season for a postseason two months away, Hawaii's season was still alive.
Still, the ban could have crippled the program. Players could have already begun to move on and consider their options. Those with eligibility remaining would be able to transfer at season's end without having to spend a year on the sidelines.
But the circumstances amplified the importance of the season, of every game, every possession, every moment. Hawaii's entire rotation, save for reserve guard Sheriff Drammeh, is upperclassmen. For those seven players, this was their last chance. With the safety net of 2016-17 suddenly ripped away from the juniors, desperation kicked in. The sentiment expressed in Valdes' sentiment set the tone for what was to come.
Later that night, on Dec. 22, Hawaii dominated Northern Iowa, winning by 16 despite shooting 8-of-27 from three. The following night, it took then-No. 3 Oklahoma to the brink, at one point holding a second-half lead. The game was tied with 2:20 remaining. The Rainbow Warriors went on to lose, but rebounded and beat Auburn by double-digits two days later.
After sweeping preseason favorite UC Irvine and winning the Big West regular season title, Hawaii showed its resilience again in the conference tournament. With the automatic bid on the line, Hawaii had a 12-point second half lead over Long Beach State. Now the score was tied at 58. The word "collapse" teetered on the tips of tongues at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
Head coach Eran Ganot looked into his players' eyes during a timeout. "At critical times in games, human nature could be to go the other way," he said after the game. "These guys have great belief. When you look in their eyes, they make you believe."
The belief manifested itself in Big West Player of the Year Stefan Jankovic. Jankovic splashed a huge three-pointer, Hawaii pulled down crucial rebounds, hit clutch free throws and the Rainbow Warriors clinched their NCAA Tournament bid.
"We all could've quit on each other," Valdes said after the game. "We all could've gone other places. But we decided to stay together and stick it out, and the outcome was worth it all at the end."
March Madness Matchups
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Hawaii isn't just in the NCAA Tournament as a feel-good story. Its 27-5 record and No. 61 KenPom ranking are no flukes. It is a mere 7-point underdog against a Cal team that has as much talent as any in the country. Vegas knows Hawaii is dangerous.
It starts from the top. Ganot, in his first year on the job at the age of 33, is a rising star in the coaching ranks. He came from St. Mary's, where he was an assistant. He coordinated an offense that was regularly one of the most efficient in the nation. He tutored Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova. He helped the Gaels to two NCAA Tournaments.
Ganot has Hawaii playing its best basketball since 2002, the last time the program reached the Big Dance. His system is perfect for Jankovic, a 6'11 Canadian who spent his first two collegiate years riding the bench at Missouri. Jankovic is a nightmare to defend in the pick-and-pop. Scoring guards Roderick Bobbitt and Valdes excel coming off of Jankovic's screens. On the defensive end, Bobbitt and Quincy Smith are ball hawks.
The future remains uncertain for Hawaii. Its players, like so many others in college sports, have been penalized for the actions of adults. Jankovic, Valdes and forward Mike Thomas all have a year of eligibility remaining. What that final year holds remains to be seen. But the Rainbow Warriors have made the most of an unfortunate situation. And there's a chance they're not done.
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