SAN JOSE — Simply look at the seeding, and No. 12 seeded Cal’s win over No. 5 seeded UNLV looks like your classic first-round NCAA Tournament upset. But was it really that unexpected? Was it that inexplicable that the Bears would pull out the upset?
Cal rode a seven-game winning streak until its final regular-season game against Stanford but dropped its final two games of the season. Still, the Bears carried a significant amount of momentum into the postseason, stepping up their defensive intensity and looking nothing like the team that began the year with losses to Harvard and, coincidentally, UNLV.
Key in the Bears’ transformation from pretender to contender was the improved efficiency of guard Justin Cobbs. Early in the season, Cobbs relied too often on settling for contested jumpers and routinely extended his shot selection from outside 3-point range. The new and improved late-season Cobbs cut out his bad 3-point shooting habits and stepped up in his role as a distributor. Cobbs cut out his inefficient shooting performances and emerged as an above-average secondary option on the offensive end.
The Bears’ capabilities on the defensive end also improved massively down the stretch. After allowing 79-plus points to Wisconsin, UCLA and Colorado early in the season, Cal successfully mitigated opponent scoring to under 70 points per performance for the remainder of the season. By the end of their campaign, their defense ranked among the best in the country, according to kenpom.com.
Their defensive efficiency ranked overall 45th in the country. Cal stifled all short-range attempts; its 2-point field goal percentage against opponents stood at ninth in the entire country. Although the Bears were unable to force many turnovers (321st in the country), their defense did a fantastic job at contesting shots and holding opponents’ scoring totals low.
Most importantly, Cal possessed a bona fide star in Allen Crabbe, a contender for the Naismith Player of the Year. Crabbe, who pulled down the Pac-12 Player of the Year award, averaged 18.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in the regular season. When the offense set broke down, Crabbe was able to rise up against shorter defenders and create higher percentage shots than his teammates in isolation situations.
The combination of a capable and intelligent distributor, a stout defense, and a legitimate NBA-prospect leading the offense passes the smell test of a team with the ability to take down any team in college basketball. So when the Bears shut down Rebels’ star forward Anthony Bennett and Crabbe and Cobbs respectively performed their individual roles to near perfection, it’s difficult to see it as much of an upset.
Cal was underseeded as a 12. That isn’t the tournament committee’s fault, however. It would have been outside the committee’s jurisdiction and power to seed a team based solely on their late-season performance. But at the same time, Cal down the stretch resembled a 3 or 4 seed.
They took down Oregon twice, which flexed its defensive muscles against an incredibly talented Oklahoma State in a tournament win. Thursday afternoon. They demolished UCLA by more than 20 points, a team littered with future NBA stars. And they took down an Arizona team on the road that spent most of the season ranked in the top-10 teams in the country. All of these wins occurred within the month of February, leading up to the Big Dance.
Most national pundits will see the Bears’ win on Thursday as a major upset, a flukey out-of-nowhere comet from outer space. Look at the numbers and trends, though, and one emerges with a completely different story.