Hawaii was a fortuitous-and wise-addition for the Big West Conference when the school joined in 2012, and it took just a couple years for the league to see a significant payoff.
After being a mid-pack team in its first three years in the Big West, the Rainbow Warriors exploded in 2015-16. Under first-year head coach Eran Ganot, Hawaii won a school-record 28 games, tied for the league regular season title and won the conference tournament to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
That would’ve already been enough of a statement, but there was more. Seeded 13th in the Big Dance, the Rainbow Warriors controlled the game against No. 4 seed California, leading most of the way in an eventual 77-66 win. Hawaii also gave Maryland a battle in the second round, hanging in for 30 minutes before fading late and falling 73-60.
Ganot walked into a situation that was touchy but also tantalizing. The Rainbow Warriors were a quality team in 2014-15, playing an up-tempo, pressuring style under interim coach Benjy Taylor, who took over on short notice after Gib Arnold was fired just before the season. Hiring someone from outside the program, though, could’ve backfired, but Ganot melded the team into a consistent unit that defeated Northern Iowa and Auburn and nearly knocked off powerful Oklahoma in the Diamond Head Classic, and also swept co-champion UC Irvine in league play.
The emergence of Stefan Jankovic was also a big reason for improvement. In his first full year after joining the team at the semester break in 2014-15, the former Missouri transfer displayed a complete game as a low-post threat also able to hit from outside, rebound and block shots. He earned league player of the year honors and was one of the better post players anywhere in the West.
Like Jankovic’s migration to the islands, Hawaii’s to the Big West has been a good move for all parties. When Hawaii settled on the Mountain West as the home for its football program, the Big West was a convenient landing spot for the rest of the Rainbow Warriors’ teams. It also was a boon for the California-based league, which gained a flagship state institution with Division I-A football that-while certainly not flush with resources-has proven in the past that it can compete at a Mountain West-like level.
Though some may have interpreted the move as a step down, Hawaii thus far has not dominated its new digs, finishing 10-8, 9-7 and 8-8 in conference in its first three years before this year’s surge. Long Beach State, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara all have emerged as perennial contenders, and all were stout this year with the top four teams separated by a combined two games.
It has allowed the Big West to work its way firmly into the middle of the pack among Division I conferences, finishing in the top 15 in conference RPI for the second straight year, and also to get back into the win column in the NCAA Tournament. The next question to be answered now is: can the Big West-and Hawaii-stay at that level?
|Long Beach State||12-4||20-15|
|UC Santa Barbara||11-5||19-14|
|Cal State Northridge||5-11||10-20|
|Cal State Fullerton||3-13||10-20|
The Big West tourney consisted of the only eight teams eligible for the postseason-Cal State Northridge voluntarily sat out after admitting to violations in the program. The event was a microcosm of the regular season, though, in that four teams were clearly head and shoulders above the rest.
Of the top four seeds, only No. 3 Long Beach State was challenged in the quarterfinals, as sixth-seeded UC Riverside-one of three league teams to beat Hawaii all year-was within two points late before falling 82-74. Top seed Hawaii (75-44 over No. 8 Cal State Fullerton), second seed UC Irvine (84-64 over No. 7 Cal Poly) and fourth-seeded UC Santa Barbara (87-61 winners over No. 5 UC Davis) all rolled into the semis.
It appeared the stage was set for a pair of exciting semifinals, and that was a case-for the most part. Hawaii led UCSB 37-34 at the break, but then went on a 21-3 run to start the second half to build a 21-point lead. Even with explosive Michael Bryson, the Gauchos never got closer than eight again and saw their nine-game winning streak snapped, 88-76, as the trio of Jankovic, Roderick Bobbitt and Aaron Valdes combined for 64 points. The second game saw Long Beach State lead by 13 early in the second half before UC Irvine rallied to take the lead with less than seven minutes left. The 49ers warmed back up again, though, and held on for a 77-72 win to move to the final.
Hawaii then appeared on its way to cruising through the tourney final when it took a 12-point lead early in the second half against Long Beach State. The 49ers were a nuisance the rest of the way, though, refusing to go away and tying the game on two occasions late, the last time on a Gabe Levin layup with just over three minutes to play. Jankovic responded with a three-pointer the next time down, though, and Bobbitt salted the game away with two free throws with two seconds left for a 64-60 win.
Player of the Year: Stefan Jankovic, F, Jr., Hawaii
Newcomer of the Year: Nick Faust, G, Sr., Long Beach State
Freshman of the Year: Khalil Ahmad, G, Cal State Fullerton
Coach of the Year: Eran Ganot, Hawaii
Roderick Bobbitt, G, Sr., Hawaii
Michael Bryson, G, Sr., UC Santa Barbara
Nick Faust, G, Sr., Long Beach State
Stefan Jankovic, F, Jr., Hawaii
Mamadou Ndiaye, C, Jr., UC Irvine
Luke Nelson, G, Jr., UC Irvine
- Hawaii won a school-record 28 games, won its first Big West regular season and tournament titles, appeared in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002 and won a game in the NCAAs for the first time in school history. The Rainbow Warriors’ win was the first by a Big West team in the round of 64 since former member Pacific defeated Pittsburgh in 2005.
- UC Irvine won three straight road games to advance to the final of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, where the Anteaters-on the road one more time-finally fell to Columbia.
- Long Beach State appeared in the NIT, where the 49ers played in one of the most entertaining offensive games of the entire season, finally bowing at Washington 107-102.
What we expected, and it happened: UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State continued to be contenders, as has been the case on a regular basis for what feels like the last 10 years.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: UC Riverside looked poised to push for the first division, perhaps even challenge for the conference title a la UC Davis in 2014-15. The Highlanders never found consistency, though, in a frustrating season epitomized by the late-year dismissal of star Taylor Johns.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Most were pretty sure Hawaii would be a solid first division team in the Big West, but few saw the Rainbow Warriors’ emergence as not just the league’s best team but a legitimate national sleeper.
Team on the rise: Long Beach State. The 49ers never really were down and have been a consistent contender in the Big West almost since Dan Monson arrived, but they’ll be no worse than co-favorites in the conference next year.
Team on the decline: Hawaii. This year was fun; now the Rainbow Warriors have to deal with a one-year NCAA tourney postseason ban, and as a result star juniors like Jankovic and Valdes have departed. This should be only temporary, though, and may even be minimized next year if Ganot’s touch is as magic as it looked in his first year.
2016-17 Big West Outlook
The question has to be asked: is there still room for expected growth, or has the Big West peaked? In the case of Hawaii, unquestionably 2016-17 is a transition year, with the program ineligible for the NCAA Tournament and four starters (Bobbitt, Jankovic, Valdes plus Quincy Smith) departed.
Last year also showed that UC Davis was unable to maintain its conference-championship form from the year before (also in no small part due to the loss of a talented senior class). Cal Poly struggled while trying to play a faster pace, UC Riverside also was unable to make a move, Cal State Northridge struggled again and Cal State Fullerton wasn’t deep enough to withstand player losses in season after a promising start. If the Big West is going to remain in the top half of D-I leagues, at least one of these programs has to surprise next year and outperform expectations.
UC Irvine may be the league’s most stable program right now. Russell Turner has developed the kind of depth that can withstand significant personnel losses such as five seniors from this year’s team. At the same time, Long Beach State will continue to be talented and will again play a brutal non-conference schedule. Justin Bibbins was a revelation at the point this past year, and Loyola Marymount transfer Evan Payne will be counted on to replace the scoring by Nick Faust. If these two teams are fighting it out for the conference title, then the Black and Blue rivalry games will be of the must-see variety.
UC Santa Barbara also shouldn’t be forgotten, even as it loses six seniors from its rotation, including Bryson. Like Long Beach, the Gauchos return talent in the backcourt with Gabe Vincent and Eric Childress, and Vincent should be ready to become the next James Nunnally/Orlando Johnson/Alan Williams/Bryson, one of the most prolific scorers in the league. The Anteaters, 49ers and Gauchos usually find their way into the first division, and at this point there’s little reason to not expect that to be the case again.