There might be eight teams in play, but the only two that count are from the Bay.
The Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament began Thursday in Seattle, Wash. with Stanford and Cal as the top two seeds and clear favorites. Though their conference records were identical, Stanford’s overall record (28-2) and higher RPI cleared them as the No. 1 seed.
The two teams have ruthlessly dominated conference opponents this season. Neither have lost to a Pac-12 team besides each other, and most of those games haven’t been remotely close either. As such, most fans are treating the entire tournament as a prolonged warm up to a third and decisive Battle of the Bay matchup.
The No. 5 Bears, however, can’t.
Riding on the potential final game is a No. 1 seed in the March Madness tournament. Currently, Cal is predicted as a No. 2 seed. While the Bears are likely to run clean through to the Elite Eight, they’d have to play one of any national top four teams. While they might be a straight draw against Stanford, they would definitely be the underdogs against Baylor, UConn, and Notre Dame.
On the other hand, a top seed position means that that Cal would only have to play a team like No. 7 Kentucky to reach the Final Four. While no matches are a given, it’s a scenario that the Bears are much more likely to succeed in.
Cal would also need a Duke loss in the ACC tournament in order to secure their top seed. The No. 6 Blue Devils won the head-to-head matchup over the Bears, 77-63, in early December and currently has a better RPI. If the Bears run the table in the Pac-12 Tournament, though, their RPI might increase enough to warrant the top seed.
But first, Cal must win the weekend.
The Bears first face USC at noon on Friday in Key Arena. While Cal is heavily favored, the Trojans are consistently a challenge. The last time the two teams faced, the Bears almost let a 13-point lead disappear in the waning minutes.
The matchup before that was even closer. In their only overtime game of the season, Cal needed a national Player of the Week performance from Gennifer Brandon to win.
The Bears will then likely face UCLA, the favorites against Utah in the first round. The Bears also enjoy playing the Bruins close to the vest, notching a close 70-65 win at home in January. In their latest matchup, though, Cal crushed UCLA in L.A., 79-51.
If the Bears can send the SoCal schools packing, they can then step their attention to their Bay area rivals. A Cardinal win would give them seven straight conference titles and a familiar top seed berth for the NCAA tournament. A Bears win, on the other hand, would uproot nearly a decade of dominance and install a new leader of west coast basketball.
Vincent Tzeng covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].