With less than four minutes left in the game, the Cal men’s basketball team was on pace to make history — the program’s worst loss ever in the NCAA tournament.
The Bears avoided that black mark, closing a 25-point deficit and losing to South Florida by just 65-54. Nine more points by the Bulls — who won Wednesday’s play-in game to earn a No. 12 seed — and this roster would have earned an ignominious place in its own books.
But avoiding the bottom doesn’t erase the disappointment of the season’s final two weeks. After reeling off six straight wins, Cal lost four of its next five. Along the way, the Bears went from first place in the Pac-12 to barely making the NCAA tournament.
“I didn’t imagine that happening,” said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery.
Those words referred to his team’s disastrous start against USF, shooting 20 percent to score a season-low 13 points in the first half. They could just as easily have referred to the way his team fell apart to close the season, choking away a share of the conference title.
“We just didn’t have any energy,” said star shooting guard Allen Crabbe, who shot just 3-of-14 in his March Madness debut. After expressing hopes of a VCU-like run, the Bears simply ran out of gas.
All season long, Cal was touted as the class of the Pac-12. The Bears returned three double-digit scorers in Crabbe and seniors Harper Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez. Other teams in the conference may have entered the season with more raw talent — UCLA, Arizona — but none had the same level of experience.
The Bruins and Wildcats both faded in nonconference play, and Cal became the league’s lone hope for national relevance. The Bears bore a top-25 ranking before blowout losses to Missouri and UNLV, but both could be excused. A one-point loss to San Diego State hurt, but it didn’t level the Bears’ confidence.
Losing to Colorado might have. The Bears tripped on their final road trip and needed Washington to lose a game for a shot at the Pac-12 title. After the Huskies did, Cal was thoroughly outplayed at Stanford, dropping consecutive games for the first time all season and putting itself on the tourney bubble.
“The last three or four weeks we just didn’t look like we had it,” Montgomery said. “We weren’t hungry … All of a sudden (we) lost our mojo.”
Gutierrez became the first player to earn both Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, but he was silenced at the end of the regular season — one of several factors that cost Cal a share of the championship. Without him and Kamp, the team’s identity could shift dramatically.
Next year’s frontcourt looks to be in good shape. True freshman David Kravish started much of this season. Richard Solomon will presumably be back from academic ineligibility, so the Bears will have more length and quickness.
But Crabbe still hasn’t made the leaps expected of him. The former Pac-10 Freshman of the Year is still a deadly 3-point shooter but, by his own admission, he relies too much on his perimeter game and can be prone to slow starts. The sophomore was Cal’s leading scorer and likely will be for as long as he stays in Berkeley, but rarely does he take over a game through sheer will.
As he goes, so will his team.
Missouri transfer Ricky Kreklow and four-star point guard Tyrone Wallace could also contribute immediately, but there are few other promising new faces.
Montgomery always maximizes his roster, but he isn’t John Calipari when it comes to accruing talent. That’s not a knock on the veteran coach; he despises the seedy world of AAU recruiting and avoids the baggage that sometimes come with elite recruits. Montgomery prefers players that fit into his system and will stay for three or four years.
The downside is that the Bears of late have trended toward shallow, hustle rosters. The upside is that this rarely affects Montgomery’s results.
This was Cal’s first disappointing season since Montgomery arrived on campus. Don’t expect another one next year.