Allen Crabbe may not spend his free time checking RPI numbers, but NCAA Tournament projections are unavoidable two weeks into February.
“It runs through your mind,” said the Pac-12’s leading scorer. “It just passes through.”
The Cal men’s basketball team reached the Big Dance last season after a second-place finish in conference play. Yet, for much of this year, the Bears (14-9, 6-5 in the Pac-12) seemed destined for the NIT. Until now.
Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Week, poured in 31 points on Sunday to lead Cal’s upset of No. 7 Arizona in Tucson, which resuscitated the Bears’ chances at an at-large bid in the tournament.
It will take several more wins for the club to reach the infamous bubble. Still, Cal has a slight advantage these final few weeks, with five of its seven remaining regular-season games at Haas Pavilion, beginning with Thursday’s 6:05 p.m. clash with UCLA.
With wins over Missouri and Arizona, the Bruins (18-6, 8-3) are essentially playing for seeding at this point, barring a late-season collapse. After losing three of four, UCLA swept the Washington schools last weekend to put itself into a first-place tie. Freshman phenom Shabazz Muhammad’s 18.5 points per game rank second in the conference, and point guard Larry Drew II’s 4.4 assist-to-turnover ratio is second best in the country.
The Bruins have also already beaten Cal this year. Back on Jan. 3, UCLA used a late 18-8 run to fuel its 79-65 triumph at Pauley Pavilion. Then again, the Bears’ confidence is at an all-time high after the Arizona win.
“Beating that team at their place just shows you the type of team we are,” said Justin Cobbs, who added 21 points in the win. “We can play with any team in the country if we set our mind to it.”
It was not just the scoring barrage of Cobbs and Crabbe that led to the win. Cal surprisingly went into a zone, which disrupted the Wildcats’ offensive rhythm. With the defensive switch, the Bears did not have to run around as much fighting off ball screens and cutters.
That zone might not necessarily reappear against the Bruins. Cal coach Mike Montgomery said UCLA is a difficult team to zone due to
Kyle Anderson’s passing ability. A zone would be vulnerable with the 6-foot-9 freshman at the free-throw line and Muhammad and fellow sharpshooter Jordan Adams on the wing.
Nevertheless, the best offense for the Bruins has been the fastbreak. Zone or not, the Bears will need to slow down that fast-paced attack or risk getting into a shootout with the Pac-12’s highest-scoring team, which likely would not end well for a Cal squad that relies so heavily on Crabbe and Cobbs.
“We have to defend in order to be successful,” Montgomery said. “When we focus and don’t make a lot of mental mistakes — and shoot the ball well — I think we can be a pretty good team.”
Whether pretty good is good enough to make the tournament is a question for the selection committee come March.
Jonathan Kuperberg covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].