Cal men’s basketball hosts Utah Valley in first round of NIT

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Michael Tao/Senior Staff

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There was no last-second miracle for the Cal men’s basketball team. As was widely expected after the Bears lost four of their last five games, the team missed the NCAA tournament and now must settle for an NIT bid.

Cal (19-13) is a No. 2 seed in the NIT tournament, which sets the Bears up with at least one more home matchup this year. That will come Wednesday when Cal hosts Utah Valley (20-11) in the first round of the 32-team tournament at 7:30 p.m. The winner of the game will face the winner of the Arkansas-Indiana State game in the second round.

The high seed is little consolation for the Bears.

“Nobody wants to play in the NIT,” said Justin Cobbs before Cal’s matchup with Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament.

Yet after dropping that game to the Buffaloes, the Bears are stuck there. They might not want to play, but because Cal accepted the bid, the players no longer have a choice. Cal is in the postseason, even if it’s the less-desirable tournament.

Since Cal secured its bid, the team has started to move away from Cobbs’ initial pessimistic sentiment.

“We came here to go to school and play basketball,” said David Kravish. “When you get another chance to do so, you got to be happy about it.”

By any statistical measure, the Bears should crush the visiting Wolverines with authority. Utah Valley’s most prolific scorer, Holton Hunsaker, shoots just 32.9 percent from the field. And while the team’s 20-11 record looks impressive, they are 6-8 when playing away from home, including 0-6 when those away matches are outside of a weak WAC conference.

While the Bears might be disappointed in an NIT berth, the Wolverines are ecstatic. This is just the second time Utah Valley has ever made the postseason — and the first time ever in the NIT. Despite their superior athleticism, if the Bears come out slow, the excited Wolverines could take advantage.

And with the Bears’ history of slow starts this season, it’s possible that Cal’s lack of excitement could lead to something similar Wednesday night. So the plan for the Bears is to come out aggressive and to attack the Wolverines, using their lack of athleticism to Cal’s advantage.

“I would love to see more aggression,” Kravish said. “More attacking the paint and bringing it to the basket.”

The Bears have the talent to win this tournament, which is exactly what coach Mike Montgomery wants to see. Just because Cal missed out on an NCAA berth does not mean this is the time to roll over.

“When you have the chance to compete and win a tournament, that’s what you should be looking forward to,” Montgomery said.

If the Bears continue far into the tournament, Montgomery is hoping that the excitement level will rise.

“If you’re able to win a game, you get more excited as time goes on,” Montgomery said. “It becomes more of an adventure.”

Riley McAtee covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee