HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Friday morning in Spokane, Washington the Rainbow Warrior basketball will try to do something that has never before been done in program history: win a game at the NCAA Tournament.
"This is a special tournament, especially for Hawaii," said Big West Player of the Year Stefan Jankovic. "We're here to win. Not just to enjoy the experience, but to win."
That would only add to what has already been a special and historic season. Matching the program record of 27 wins en route to a Big West regular season championship and a conference tournament title. All of it with NCAA sanctions looming over the team, and as of now, no possibility of the postseason next year.
"Our goal was still to make the NCAA Tournament and nothing changed," said Jankovic. "People kept asking us, 'next year what are you guys going to do?' At the end of the day, all we really can do is play for this year and make the most out of this year."
The 'Bows run to college basketball's biggest stage has been far from easy. In little more than 17 months, the program had three head coaches, steep NCAA sanctions levied upon it and a promising sophomore leave the team days before the final weekend of the regular season. None of that has phased the Warriors under the guidance of first-year head coach Eran Ganot.
"It was an opportunity for us to send a message of how we can lock in and fight through adversity, get better and try to do something special," said Ganot. "I'm just very happy for those guys that they were rewarded for all their sacrifices."
As UH prepares for its first NCAA Tournament game since 2002, it's the California men's basketball program that is now faced with dealing with adversity. On Monday, assistant coach Yann Hufnagel was fired after the university concluded a seven-month investigation into sexual harassment allegations. On Wednesday, senior point guard, and Bears leading scorer, Tyrone Wallace suffered a broken hand in practice which will cost him the remainder of the season.
"A bump in the road, you keep moving forward," said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. "We don't spend a lot of time [on it], we're not consumed with it. We talk about it, deal with it, keep moving. That's life."
Cal will look to 6'11" freshman Ivan Rabb to help soften the blow of Wallace's absence. Slowing down the projected NBA lottery pick will fall on Jankovic.
"As a competitor I love it," said Jankovic. "This is a big stage and this is where the big time players play."
The 'Bows were already the most popular 13-4 upset pick in March Madness brackets. Even the President of the United States of America thinks his hometown team will surprise the Golden Bears, but a win on Friday wouldn't be a surprise to the guys in that UH locker room.
"We respect them, we definitely do, but we never back down," Jankovic said confidently. "The big name schools don't scare us. We're a tough team, always have been."
Added senior guard Sai Tummala, "we have a bunch of guys that don't get as much respect as they should, and now we have the stage to show it."
A historic win at the Big Dance might just change that.