Even after losing its last two games, the Cal men’s basketball team was all but assured of a second straight NCAA tournament bid. The Bears were rewarded for their overall body of work with a 12 seed in San Jose, where they will face UNLV on Thursday at 4:27 p.m. in the round of 64.
Cal (20-11) has now gone dancing in four of Mike Montgomery’s five years as coach. The Bears are one of five Pac-12 teams to make the tournament, this just one year after Cal was the only team in the league to receive an at-large bid.
“We really feel like we can do this,” said Allen Crabbe. “We can really put our name back out there.
“I don’t really look at the seeds, you got to look at the matchup.”
And the matchup does seem favorable. Besides the fact that the Bears don’t have to leave the Bay Area, they are facing a UNLV squad they nearly beat at Haas Pavilion on Dec. 9. Down one, the Runnin’ Rebels rebounded their own air ball and scored with one second left to win, 76-75
“I remember missing that final rebound,” said forward David Kravish. “We had that game.”
Led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Crabbe and All-Pac-12 second-team point guard Justin Cobbs, the Bears accumulated five top-50 RPI wins throughout the season en route to a second-place finish in the league. They were shocked by No. 10 seed Utah in Thursday’s Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals, a game forward Richard Solomon said some players took for granted. That left the entire weekend for them to ponder their seeding.
The consensus was that Cal would for sure receive an at-large bid, but as Montgomery said, “Nobody knows.” He said there was some apprehension after Oregon, the Pac-12 tournament champion, was surprisingly given a 12 seed in the first bracket announced. That was nothing compared to last year, when Cal sweated out the Selection Show, waiting until the very end to learn that the squad was in the play-in round, where it lost badly to South Florida.
“It seems so much more manageable,” Montgomery said of play nearby on Thursday. “I think our attitude will be good going into the game. I think we’ll be fired up and ready to play. Whether that’s enough, we’ll see. I don’t think we’ll go in not knowing what they’re capable of and what we have to do to give us a chance.”
Despite being picked to finish third in a rejuvenated conference and winning their first six games of the season, the Bears looked like an NIT team at best in mid-January, having lost at home to Harvard before starting 2-3 in league play.
Then, on Feb. 2, Cal beat No. 10 Oregon at Haas Pavilion. A week later, Cal beat No. 7 Arizona in Tucson. It was the first of seven straight victories, including a blowout of UCLA and another win over the Ducks, this time in Eugene. While the Bears blew a shot at a share of the Pac-12 title with a regular season-ending loss to Stanford, they had already done enough to warrant a ticket to the Big Dance.
“We just really have to cherish this moment, we can’t let it go to waste,” Crabbe said. “I don’t want this season to be over with on Thursday.”