The first sign was a cold dose of reality in Wisconsin.
After beating up on middling competition to start the season 6-0, the Cal men’s basketball team lost by 25 to the Badgers on Dec. 2. “I would’ve liked to seen us compete,” said coach Mike Montgomery after the game.
In hindsight, falling at home to Harvard was not so bad, but there is no sugarcoating the way the Bears gave up 20 offensive rebounds in a 62-47 home loss to Washington, a performance that caused Montgomery to question his squad’s mental toughness.
Perhaps the final blow was 10 days later at Stanford, where the Cardinal shot 36 percent from the field yet still beat Cal easily.
At 2-3 in the Pac-12 and 10-7 overall, the Bears had more problems than solutions, but one thing was clear: This team was not contending for a Pac-12 title and was not making the NCAA Tournament.
“People maybe didn’t see us even making the NIT,” said forward David Kravish.
To say Cal turned things around would be a gross understatement. The Bears won nine of their final 11 regular-season games to finish in a second-place tie and reach the Big Dance for the second-straight year.
Unlike in 2012, Cal’s NCAA Tournament opener was no play-in game — and it was no embarrassing loss. The Bears, a No. 12 seed with the good fortune of playing in San Jose, faced off against a UNLV squad that had beaten them by one point earlier in the season. At HP Pavilion on March 21, Cal made it clear who the better team was, upsetting the Runnin’ Rebels, 64-61, to advance to the round of 32.
Two days later, the Bears were bested by Syracuse and its athletic, long-armed 2-3 zone. There is no shame in falling 66-60 to the Orange, who have since beaten top seed Indiana and No. 3 seed Marquette by a combined 27 points en route to a Final Four berth.
For a team that could never quite crack the top-25 rankings, finishing in the round of 32 — equaling the Bears’ best tournament finish in the last decade and a half — was a fitting end to Cal’s season.
On Feb. 10, one week after upsetting No. 10 Oregon in Berkeley, the Bears shocked No. 7 Arizona in Tucson. It was the first of seven straight wins that vaulted Cal into second place and NCAA Tournament conversation.
The highlight of that run might have been the Bears’ Valentine’s Day massacre of UCLA. Inside a packed Haas Pavilion, Cal played what was unequivocally its best half of the season, taking a 47-22 lead into halftime.
“This is the team we should have been all season,” Kravish said after the game. “This is the team we should be.”
It was not necessarily the team they would be. In many of the wins that followed, the Bears struggled shooting the ball and employed an aggressive, physical defense to grind out victories.
That defense is the foundation for what should be a bright future.
Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and leading scorer, has given no indication as to whether he will enter the NBA Draft. Even if the junior swingman leaves, the Bears should have the pieces to contend for a conference title and reach the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six years with Montgomery’s at the program’s helm.
6-foot-6 guard Ricky Kreklow, who was injured for most of the season, and five-star recruit Jabari Bird should make up for Crabbe’s production. Aside from Crabbe, Cal will return all but three senior reserves, and everyone, particularly Tyrone Wallace and Richard Solomon, will surely continue to improve under Montgomery’s tutelage.
Wallace could very well be a jump shot away from becoming a star, while Solomon’s 33 points and 21 rebounds in two NCAA Tournament games is evidence the 6-foot-10 forward could be close to realizing his potential.
And the sky-high expectations the Bears will face if Crabbe does stay — well, there are worse problems to have.