Tipoff is Sunday, 2:30 p.m. at Maples Pavilion. The stadium has 7,329 seats, almost all of which will be taken up by red, blue or gold masses.
Cal’s David Kravish will line up across from whomever Stanford — its starters always in flux — plays at center. The referee will toss the ball high into the air, where it will then be tipped to one side of Maples Pavilion.
Forty minutes later, the regular season — and one team’s grief — will end. But which team needs greater relief?
Basketball’s version of the Big Game, sans-axe, will still carry the usual rivalry-match implications. The Cardinal, who lost in Berkeley a month ago, want to avoid being swept. The Bears, aside from wanting to sweep, hope to keep their slim title hopes alive. Players and coaches have already spat out the usual maxims about preparation and focus.
“Our job is just to come out and keep proving what we’re capable of,” said forward Harper Kamp, trying to forget the past week while simultaneously holding on to it for motivation.
“We had a good practice yesterday,” said guard Allen Crabbe, smiling with the hope that Cal will get lucky.
“We just want to maintain momentum,” said Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins, neglecting to mention just how little momentum his team has.
Both teams are coming off their most painful losses, and nothing will fill up the gaping hole of failure like owning Bay Area bragging rights.
Cal was one of the preseason favorites to win the inaugural Pac-12 Championship and its second conference title in three years.
For most of the season, the Bears (23-7, 13-4 in the Pac-12) proved themselves to be the league’s most balanced team. They played tough, smart defense, keyed by seniors Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez. They became the conference’s best hope for March Madness; when prognosticators brought up the doomsday scenario of a one-bid Pac-12, the Bears were always the lone predicted representative. Then, the fall.
Needing to win out its schedule to guarantee another banner, Cal tripped. Colorado avenged its loss in Berkeley, dominating the undersized Bears in the paint. Cal led only once, and for less than a minute.
The Bears need first-place Washington — whom they defeated on the road — to lose on Saturday to UCLA, a team whose dysfunction was recently unveiled in Sports Illustrated.
“It’s like falling in love,” said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. “Better to have loved than lost. It feels bad, but you’ve got to put yourself out there emotionally.”
Love? Stanford got stood up on its second date. In late January, the Cardinal were 5-1, tied with Cal at the top of the Pac-12 standings. They were one of the conference’s most pleasant surprises, as freshman guard Chasson Randle helped run an efficient offense filled with athletic forwards.
Since then, the Cardinal (19-10, 9-8) have lost seven of their past 11 games. The most mystifying of the seven losses came last Saturday in Salt Lake City. Stanford had just annihilated Colorado two days earlier, blitzing the Buffs by 24 points.
And Utah — well, Utah was one of the worst teams in all of Division I basketball. And still, it was the Utes and their average scoring margin of -13.3 that finally earned their sixth ‘W’ of the season.
“Kinda shocking,” Crabbe said. “Stanford’s a good basketball team. Unfortunate that they lost to Utah at time like this. Just shows that anything can happen in this conference.”
A lot of things might happen, but heading into the final game of the season, Crabbe and his teammates no longer control most of them.
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