Just one month ago, the Cal men’s basketball team was praying for a chance into March Madness. Now, the Bears are praying for a chance to win the Pac-12 regular-season title.
Sitting third in the Pac-12 standings, Cal (20-9, 12-5 in the Pac-12) is just half a game from first place, a position shared by No. 19 Oregon and No. 23 UCLA. Unlike the Ducks and the Bruins who have two games remaining in their schedules, the Bears have only the Wednesday 8 p.m. game against Stanford at Haas Pavilion.
For Cal to get at least a share of the Pac-12 title, it needs to defeat the Cardinal and hope that both Oregon and UCLA lose at least one game.
The Bears’ chance at the title is slim, but considering how far they have come since February, it’s not crazy.
Before its home game against the then-No. 10 Ducks on Feb. 2, Cal was 5-4 in conference play, losing to mediocre teams like Stanford and Washington.
“We’ve got to get better,” said coach Mike Montgomery in preparation for the Jan. 31 game against Oregon State. “Hopefully that sense of urgency is there. If you’re going to play in the postseason, you’re going to have to win some of those games.”
To Montgomery’s delight, the Bears did get better. The Bears since Feb. 2 have gone 7-1, defeating Oregon twice, No. 18 Arizona at Tucson and UCLA at Berkeley. Shaking up the Pac-12 landscape late in the season, Cal now sits in the outer fringes of the top-25 rankings.
Stanford (17-13, 8-9), on the other hand, has been erratically hot and cold since the beginning of February. Since their biggest win of the season against the Ducks on Jan. 30, the Cardinal have gone 4-5.
Now out of a chance for the Big Dance, Stanford will attempt for the big shocker at Haas Pavilion.
Unlike the teams at the bottom third of the standings, Stanford has March Madness-worthy talent. Coach Johnny Dawkins has a solid nucleus of forwards Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis and guard Chasson Randle.
The leading scorer among the Cardinal players, Powell is a threat in the frontcourt. With 15.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, the 6-foot-10 forward is smoother and more mobile than his size suggests.
While not as productive offensively as Powell, Huestis stars on the defensive front. The 6-foot-7 Huestis will likely be the defensive matchup against Allen Crabbe.
“Josh is like an eraser,” Randle said after the Cardinal defeated Oregon State on Feb. 3. “Anything to the basket I count on him taking it out. He’s been a key for us.”
Crabbe, holding onto his once-comfortable title as Pac-12’s leading scorer by one-tenth of a point ahead of UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad, has been averaging a shade over 10 points per game in the last four games.
While starters like Justin Cobbs and Tyrone Wallace have stepped up late in sporadic sparks, the Bears will need Crabbe to find his scoring groove.
With tournament season on the horizon, Crabbe’s contribution will be crucial to carry Cal’s red-hot form.