The Cal men’s basketball team huddled in one of the rooms in Haas Pavilion on Sunday, watching its fortunes roll past them on CBS.
The Bears didn’t wait in vain; after nearly every slot had been filled, the 10-member selection committee hit Cal’s season with a defibrillator.
“It was kind of a relief,” said shooting guard Allen Crabbe. ”It was the last bracket and we still haven’t gotten called yet. We just feeling like, ‘Man, we’re not going to make it.’”
No matter that the committee stuck Cal in one of the tourney’s four play-in games — the Bears are just happy to still be playing. A week ago, senior forward Harper Kamp declared that the Pac-12 tournament was his team’s “new season”: The same phrase can now be applied to March Madness, a fresh start for No. 12 seed Cal (24-9) that begins Wednesday at 6 p.m. against South Florida. The winner earns the right to play fifth-seed Temple.
The two teams meet in Dayton, Ohio, after enduring similar scares. Back in the tournament for the first time in 20 years, South Florida (20-13) is arguably the least deserving among the Big East’s astounding nine bids. The Bulls finished sixth in a conference that — outside of Syracuse — doesn’t have any truly dominant teams. They enter the tournament as one of the committee’s more contested decisions.
Perpetually on the bubble during tournament projections, South Florida’s late wins over Cincinnati and Louisville — both top-50 RPI teams — helped push it into the field of 68.
Cal’s resume isn’t much more impressive. Unlike USF, the Bears were a good team in a bad conference. After missing out on both the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles, Cal still managed to earn an at-large berth for what many projected as a one-bid conference.
The situation echoes that of 2010, when Washington and Cal were the league’s only two bids. Similarly maligned two years ago, the Pac-10 was somewhat redeemed when the 11th-seeded Huskies upset Marquette and New Mexico to reach the Sweet Sixteen. The Bears, an at-large bid, won their first-round matchup before falling to eventual champion Duke.
This year, the Pac-12 will rely on Cal and Colorado, the tournament champion, to salvage its reputation.
“I’m pretty sure everybody counted the Pac-12 out this year,” Crabbe said. “I think us and Colorado, we’re able to represent them, this conference. We can do something with it.”
“Playing (just) for ourselves would maybe seem a little too selfish,” said point guard Justin Cobbs.
The Bears have a good chance to at least get out of the play-in game. Few teams can match Cal’s backcourt combination of Crabbe, Cobbs and Pac-12 Player of the Year Jorge Gutierrez. USF can contend with a top-20 defense, but it is unapologetic about playing ugly, slow-down basketball. Despite the presence of quick freshman guard Anthony Collins, not a single player averages double-digit scoring.
But the fact that the Bears struggled lately in big games has been worrisome. Cal couldn’t close out Stanford to win a share of the regular-season title, then struggled against Colorado in a game that could have secured a higher NCAA seed. The team runs a seven-man rotation, and whether or not the team is simply worn out at this point in the season is a legitimate question.
“It was a little slump that we were in,” Crabbe said. “We’re gonna have to get out of it quick if we want to go far in this tournament.”
The team looks to VCU for validation that anything is possible. Last year’s upset darling, the Rams rode the momentum of its play-in game victory all the way to the Final Four.
“That’s what March is all about,” Cobbs said.