The Bears flew to Maui with a lot to play for. A chance to win a prestigious preseason tournament. An opportunity to get revenge against Syracuse, the team that knocked Cal out of the NCAA Tournament last year. And, most importantly, a chance to put an unbeaten record to the test against some of the top teams in college basketball.
Just take a look at the lineup of other teams that made the trek with the Bears: the aforementioned Syracuse squad ranked No. 8 in the country coming into the tournament. Gonzaga ranked No. 11. Baylor, No. 18. Meanwhile, teams such as Minnesota, Arkansas, Dayton and Chaminade entered with undefeated records.
And beat the Bears they did. Cal finished the tournament with a disappointing 1-2 record, with losses to Syracuse and Dayton.
Cal began the Maui Invitational with an early win over Arkansas. Although the Bears entered that game as the favorite, they found themselves tied, 41-41, at halftime, as the Razorbacks’ full-court press defense gave the Cal team trouble.
Then the Bears exploded. David Kravish, Cal’s junior power forward, added 19 points and 15 rebounds as the Bears finished with an 85-77 victory.
But although the Bears had beaten the Razorbacks, they lost something far greater than the game: Richard Solomon.
Cal’s senior power forward was ruled out of the contest against Syracuse just an hour before tipoff with a corneal abrasion he suffered in that Arkansas game. He also would not return for the subsequent tilt against Dayton.
Without Solomon, Cal was already down one of its top players in a game against Syracuse in which the Bears were already expected to need every last drop of talent on the roster to succeed.
When Kravish got into foul trouble, Cal found itself outmatched without an experienced big man on the court. The only other big on the roster is center Kameron Rooks, a freshman. The Bears tinkered with four- and sometimes five-guard lineups, but they couldn’t overcome Syracuse’s length by playing small-ball.
“I like the way we fought without our big guy, Richard Solomon,” said point guard Justin Cobbs after the game. But fight as they might, Cal lost to Syracuse — which would go on to win the tournament and remain undefeated — in a 92-81 decision.
Cobbs, meanwhile, led Cal’s attack against Dayton the next day, although the Bears would not fare much better. Despite the senior’s career-high 31 points, including 14 in a row at one point the game, the Bears dropped an 82-64 game in a performance that could be described as underwhelming at best. Cal shot just 40.4 percent from the field, and only Kravish and Cobbs were able to break into double-digit points.
“Thought we played tough today but just didn’t have it, ran out of gas,” Montgomery said after the game.
Cal came into the tournament hoping to prove itself. With a disappointing fourth-place finish, the Bears won’t have another chance to do so until they play Creighton on Dec. 22.
To date, Cal has not received even one vote in the AP top 25 all season. The squad is significantly overshadowed by Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and Colorado in a deep Pac-12 conference. Any hopes of moving into the poll or catching eyes in the conference washed away last week like footprints on a beach in Maui.