Three more wins, and you win a ticket to the Big Dance.
That’s what the Cal men’s basketball team, along with every other surviving team, keeps in mind. More than two NCAA bids would be shocking for the struggling Pac-12, and no one wants to chance an at-large bid to the committee’s weighing of RPI and strength of schedule.
Best to guarantee a March Madness slot by winning the Pac-12 tournament. For the second-seeded Bears, that starts with a 6 p.m. date on Thursday against No. 7-seed Stanford.
“There’s probably six, seven, eight teams that have a legitimate chance to go in and win,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said Tuesday.
Wednesday’s upset-free opening round has already shut out four of the 12 teams at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. That there are only eight teams left in the tournament reduces hyperbole to tautology, but the nugget of truth is still there: If any and every team can win, then any and every team is vulnerable.
The Cardinal (20-10, 10-8 in the Pac-12) kept Cal from winning a share of the regular-season title last Sunday, and their deep lineup is ideal for wearing out the Bears. Cal (23-8, 13-5), arguably still the better team, carries a resume as pockmarked as any other squad in the league.
Strengths: Coaching, consistency.
Montgomery didn’t win the conference’s top coaching honor (which went to Washington’s Lorenzo Romar), but that doesn’t take away from his significant acumen. The 65-year-old almost never coaches an underachieving team, and his fourth year in Cal has been no different.
After losing starting forward Richard Solomon to injury and academic ineligibility, the Bears still ended up with the best overall record in the conference. But few other coaches could have squeezed 23 wins out of only five reliable players, none of whom possess explosive athleticism.
“We’ve won a lot of games that maybe in some ways we shouldn’t have,” Montgomery said. “Maybe we’ve just scrapped our way.”
The Bears’ calling card is their stingy defense, keyed by Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Jorge Gutierrez. But the wind sprint of a conference tourney often benefits those who get hot, and Cal already operates at peak capacity most of the time.
Weaknesses: Confidence, depth.
Cal is sliding, having dropped two consecutive games for the first time all season. The Bears led for less than two minutes at Colorado; they played Stanford to the final 20 seconds but were never in control.
“I don’t know why we’re lacking so much focus but we really are,” senior forward Harper Kamp said after his team’s loss to Stanford on Sunday. “When I say soft, we’re just letting them push us around and letting them get to us mentally for some reason.”
The Bears are in trouble if Gutierrez — who has totaled eight points in his past two games — can’t shake his funk. Not an explosive scorer, he is still one of Cal’s sole threats to penetrate down the lane.
The starting five’s only potential NBA first-rounder is sophomore Allen Crabbe. The bench has little punch: point guard Brandon Smith is a poor shooter and prone to turnovers, while forward Robert Thurman’s post-move arsenal is severely limited.
Can a seven-man lineup earn an automatic NCAA tournament berth? Stanford has 10 players who average double-digit minutes — including freshman point guard Chasson Randle, who has scored 47 points in his past two games.
“It would be tough, because we have to play so hard to begin with,” Montgomery said. “We have to really scrap. It’s not easy for us. We don’t overpower people athletically. We have to play really hard on defense. We have to play really scrappy basketball.
“It would be a challenge, but we’re up for it.”