Last year, Justin Cobbs did not watch any of the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend games.
After South Florida crushed the Cal men’s basketball team in the play-in game, the Bears’ point guard did not feel like watching basketball for the next week. The wound was still fresh. Still is.
The one-and-done format is part of what makes March Madness so great, but there is another side of it that Cobbs and Cal know all too well. As coach Mike Montgomery said, “there are no do-overs. There is no next game unless we earn the next game.”
“If that doesn’t get your mind going,” Cobbs said, “knowing your season can be over just like that … ” He trails off. “I think we’re very conscious of what’s at stake.”
In arguably the best matchup possible for a 12 seed, the Bears (20-11) open the NCAA Tournament Thursday at 4:27 p.m. in nearby San Jose against a fifth-seeded UNLV team that barely beat Cal earlier in the season.
While Montgomery quipped that it might be faster to fly from Las Vegas than fight through traffic on Interstate 880, the players are excited about what they call a “home” game at HP Pavilion. They are also looking to get the bad taste out of their mouth from their 76-75 loss to the Runnin’ Rebels (25-9) back on Dec. 9.
At Haas Pavilion, Cal rode a balanced, efficient offensive effort to a one-point lead with 11 seconds remaining. Cobbs blocked UNLV point guard Anthony Marshall’s shot attempt, but forward Quintrell Thomas scooped up the airball and laid it in just before the buzzer.
“The layup, that’s all I remember,” said Cal forward Richard Solomon. “Walking into the locker room, we were all really mad. We felt like they got away with one.
“We got a little chip on our shoulders.”
The Bears will have to rebound from their late-season slide to avenge the loss and advance to the round of 32 to face either Syracuse or Montana.
After a seven-game win streak fueled by defense, Cal let the Pac-12 championship slip away with a poor defensive effort in its regular-season finale loss to Stanford. The team claimed it had gotten over it but showed little improvement in a stunning 79-69 overtime loss to No. 10 seed Utah in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals last Thursday.
Solomon said some of the players took the Utes for granted. “We thought it would be easy,” he said.
They know the Rebels won’t be. Forward David Kravish said the Bears will get “embarrassed” if they come out flat.
Cal will need to figure out how to stop the 6-foot-8, 240-pound freshman forward Anthony Bennett, a projected top-10 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, who destroyed Cal at Haas Pavilion with 25 points and 13 rebounds. The Bears will not be able to double team Bennett too much, according to Montgomery. “UNLV’s got too many (other) guys capable of scoring 20 points,” he said.
While the matchup may seem seem perfectly scripted for a Cal upset, the Bears are still a 12 seed playing a 5 seed. And while the December loss is still on Cal’s minds, Thursday’s rematch is less about revenge and all about living to fight another day.
“When it’s tournament time, anybody can beat anybody,” Cobbs said. “If you’re playing well at the right time, playing the right way, doing the right things, you can beat anybody. So if we stay focused and believe, the sky’s the limit for us.”