With March Madness berth in danger, Cal men’s basketball hosts Utah

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After back-to-back losses in the desert, Cal’s March Madness hopes are in jeopardy.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index lists the Cal men’s basketball team as the No. 67 team in the country. That means if tournament seeds were decided by BPI alone, Cal would just miss out on the 68 team NCAA tournament, due to a number of conferences that receive autobids.

Based on RPI, a similar statistic, the Bears fare slightly better, coming in at No. 51. And ESPN’s Joe Lunardi still projects Cal to be a 10 seed in the Big Dance, but with a 4-7 record over its last 11 games, the Bears could easily fall out.

All of that is just a fancy, statistical way of saying that Cal (18-11, 9-7 Pac-12) is on the bubble and still fighting for a chance to make March Madness. If the Bears fall short, it will be only the second time in coach Mike Montgomery’s tenure that the team has missed the NCAA Tournament.

“Nobody likes losing,” said senior forward Richard Solomon. “There’s nothing you can do. You can’t soak in it. You gotta learn from your mistakes — that’s what good teams do.”

The Bears are running out of chances to bolster their NCAA resume. The team has just two regular season games left — against Utah and Colorado — before heading to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament. After that, there will be nothing more the team can do before Selection Sunday on March 16.

The final push will begin Wednesday at 8 p.m. when the Bears take on Utah (19-9, 8-8) at Haas Pavilion.

Utah is a team that is most likely out of the tournament already, but the Utes are dangerous. They’ve won five of their last seven games, including a 23-point blowout over Arizona State and a close loss in overtime to No. 3 Arizona. While Utah’s shaky start to the Pac-12 season has likely already eliminated it from March Madness, their recent play has been arguably more impressive than Cal’s.

The Utes are led by Delon Wright, a 6-foot-5 junior guard who transferred to Utah after he spent time at City College of San Francisco. Wright likes to play close to the basket to avoid jump shots and still averages 16.4 points per game — but his game is not limited to scoring. He also collects 6.8 rebounds per game while dishing out 5.3 assists.

Wright, a Los Angeles native, has a history with Justin Cobbs, who often saw Wright play when the two played AAU ball. Though they never played against each other due to the age gap between them, Cobbs is more familiar with Wright than anyone else on the Cal team.

“He’s scrappy,” Cobbs said. “He’s a stat stuffer. He does everything; he passes, assists, rebounds.”

Cobbs has similar stats to Wright, with 15.8 points per game and 5.8 assists. But where Cobbs can’t compare is rebounds — he averages just 2.8 per game. Cobbs plays more at the point, where as Wright is the kind of do-everything guard Cal doesn’t really have on its roster.

This is the first time Cal has played Utah since the Utes knocked Cal out of the Pac-12 tournament last year. The stakes are arguably higher this time around — if the Bears lose to Utah on Wednesday, it might knock them out of the NCAA Tournament.

“We need to just re-establish our rules on defense and make sure everybody knows what they’re supposed to be doing,” Solomon said. “It starts on the defensive end. If we can’t guard people, if we can’t get stops, we’ll never be able to win a game.”

Riley McAtee covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee