At Wednesday’s press conference, Cal coach Mike Montgomery jokingly asked whom the Bears were playing this week.
“Let’s play two,” he said.
If only. The Bears close out the regular season Sunday with their rivalry rematch against Stanford, and while that game will hopefully be as exciting as their first meeting, that’s not the big game this weekend for Cal.
That matchup is at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, between UCLA and first-place Washington. Win, and the Huskies claim the Pac-12 title. Lose, and Cal regains the shot it missed at Colorado.
Up until Sunday’s 70-57 loss in Boulder, the Bears controlled their own destiny. But they shot 38 percent and got pounded on the boards, looking nothing like the team that had won six straight and seemed fated for the conference championship.
On Wednesday, Harper Kamp said he had been “grieving” up until Tuesday.
Allen Crabbe could only give a sheepish grin. “Hopefully Washington will slip up for us,” he said.
But the players, like everyone else, aren’t giving way to false hope. Washington is unlikely to slip up in its finale, and even if it does slip, that doesn’t mean the squad can’t still beat UCLA. Even before a story in Sports Illustrated came out this week detailing the decline of the program, the irresponsibility of immature underclassmen and the lack of leadership of coach Ben Howland, the Bruins looked like a long shot to upset the streaking Huskies.
It took an other-worldly performance from UCLA center Joshua Smith to keep the team’s Feb. 2 contest with Washington close. The tilt is not shaping up to be that close of a contest.
As such, never was the adage of focusing on the game at hand more apt than now. Cal can’t come out flat at Maples, because Stanford, though terribly inconsistent, is talented, athletic and hungry. Regardless of Saturday morning’s outcome in L.A., the Bears need this one.
If Washington wins, then the Pac-12 title is on the line. But even if the Huskies put on the crown Saturday morning, Cal must win to avoid falling into a tie for second place, which could result in a drop all the way to the fourth seed in next week’s Pac-12 tournament.
Yes, it’s a rivalry game, but beating Stanford for rivalry’s sake doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot to Cal. But a win in and of itself does.
Stanford is bleeding. After a 5-1 record to start to Pac-12 play, the Cardinal have since lost seven of 11. Their latest defeat? To Utah, widely considered one of the worst — if not the worst — major conference college basketball team.
But a victory on Saturday gives Stanford 20 wins on the season, a winning conference record and a season split with its Bay Area rival.
Don’t look ahead, take it one game at a time — there’s a reason these cliches are repeated over and over again. They’re true.
The Bears aren’t the NCAA tournament lock they might have been with a Pac-12 title. Another poor road performance, and Cal might not be in the NCAA tournament. There’s always next week’s Pac-12 tournament — and the automatic bid that comes with winning it. But winning three games in a row is tough for any team, especially a thin squad like the Bears.
We won’t know what the selection committee thinks of Cal until Selection Sunday, but Sunday’s regular season finale — regardless of Washington — could make all the difference.
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