A Cal basketball season that began with almost limitless optimism crashed to a sudden and shocking end Friday after a 77-66 defeat to Hawaii in the opening round of the NCAA tournament at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on Friday.
Almost certainly the game marked the end of the brief college careers of freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, a pair of top-10 national recruits, whose arrival last spring sent expectations for the program soaring.
Also cloudy is the future of second-year coach Cuonzo Martin, whose team was 14th in the AP preseason poll and arrived in Spokane ranked No. 23 nationally and seeded fourth in the NCAA’s South Region.
The entire week was a nightmare for the Bears, and there was more bad news just prior to tipoff when starting guard Jabari Bird went to the locker room with back spasms. One of the team’s hottest players in recent weeks, the junior from Salesian High never played in Cal’s first NCAA game since 2013.
The Bears (23-11) already were at a manpower deficit because starting point guard Tyrone Wallace broke his hand in practice on Wednesday and did not make the trip. With Bird also out, Cal’s entire starting backcourt was shelved.
But Cal had bigger problems still leading into the game.
Assistant coach Yann Hufnagel was fired Monday after a long campus investigation which showed he sexually harassed a female reporter. Questions followed about whether Martin reported the issue promptly, with the university announcing it would conduct a broader review of the entire process.
By game time, Cal simply did not have enough answers for Hawaii (28-5), underdog champs of the Big West Conference. Quincy Smith and Roderick Bobbitt, a pair of East Bay natives, led the Warriors to their first-ever NCAA victory by scoring 19 and 17 points, respectively.
Cal junior Jordan Mathews, starting in Bird’s place, played aggressively and scored 23 points. Rabb, the former Bishop O’Dowd High star who is projected as an NBA lottery pick, had 13 points and 12 rebounds. Sam Singer, who replaced Wallace at the point, scored a season-high 12 points before fouling out in the final minute.
Brown’s afternoon was a disaster. He scored just four points on 1-for-6 shooting and had seven turnovers before fouling out wth 6:22 left. Considered a potential top-5 pick in the NBA draft, the 6-foot-7 forward from Atlanta finished the season by making just 10 of 48 shots over the Bears’ final five games.
Brown sat expressionless on the bench as the game’s final minutes ticked away.