With how fate outlined the bracket in the Bears’ favor, there is no reason to not believe Cal men’s basketball can’t win the wide-open Pac-12 Tournament.
The margin of talent between the top-seeded teams and the bottom-dwellers is arguably the smallest the conference has seen in years. Any of the eight teams remaining on Thursday can win the golden ticket to an automatic bid to March Madness.
But the parity within the Pac-12 doesn’t mean all roads to the final game are equal. Some teams might have grunt work to do to make the extra push for another day at Las Vegas.
Thankfully for Montgomery and company, Cal can take a breath. Facing Utah in the quarterfinals and likely the No. 3 seed Oregon in the semifinals on Friday, the No. 2 seed Bears have a smoother road to the finals than other teams.
If there was a solace for Cal to missing out on the Pac-12 regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the tournament, it’s that the Bears don’t have to face dark horse teams like No. 4 seed Arizona, No. 5 Colorado or No. 9 Arizona State.
The Wildcats, once ranked No. 3 in the nation this season, are arguably the most talented team in the Pac-12. Plagued by an embarrassing Pac-12 campaign relative to its impeccable nonconference play record, Arizona has star power in Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill, who can easily take over the tournament.
Many Pac-12 fans may have forgotten the Wildcats’ talents, but Vegas certainly has not; most betting experts have picked Arizona to most likely win the whole competition. (Only in the Pac-12 would the fourth seed be considered the favorite.)
Arizona State and Colorado lack the big names and flashiness of Arizona that seems to attract Las Vegas, but they are both well coached. In the Sun Devils’ 89-88 overtime victory against Stanford on Wednesday, guard Jahii Carson, who scored 34 points, showcased why he is considered one of the most explosive players in the Pac-12.
Under coach Tad Boyle, the Buffaloes are a big-game team that exudes confidence in the biggest stages. Last year, Colorado won the Pac-12 Tournament as a No. 6 seed and advanced to the second round of March Madness. It can easily repeat its success again this year.
On the flip side of the bracket, Oregon and Utah don’t quite strike the same level of fear as Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado.
The Ducks, like the Wildcats, have once soared in the top-10 stratosphere, but the upset-friendly Pac-12 weathered its reputation. Losing six of its last 11 games, including the 72-62 loss to the Utes in its regular-season finale, Oregon is increasingly looking like an aging, toothless tiger — or better yet, a beakless fowl.
Yes, Utah has won its last two games against the Ducks and USC, but do two key wins right a season of wrongs? The Utes defeated a slumping Oregon squad and a Trojans team that had two players suspended after a melee in Spokane, Wash., last week.
On the flip side, Cal is a late bloomer, winning seven of its last eight games. Whether the loss to Stanford is an outlier or the start of the end for the Bears remains to be seen, it’s more reasonable to give Cal the benefit of the doubt for its impressive body of work over the past two months.
But then again, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and crazy things have happened in this tournament before.
Lady Luck sided with the Bears in mapping out the bracket before the tournament. Whether she will side with Cal during the tournament is as unknown as a game of craps.