The memory might be a little hazy, but at one point — back in January — the Cal men’s basketball team was tied for first in the Pac-12, having ripped off five consecutive wins to begin the conference season. Despite cooling off and coming back down to Earth, a win over then-No. 1 and then-undefeated Arizona on Feb. 1 seemed to validate the Bears (18-12, 9-8 Pac-12) as an NCAA tournament-bound team.
A lot can change in a month. When Cal hosts Colorado (21-9,10-7) in its last Pac-12 game of the season Saturday, more than just a proper send-off for Cal’s senior class will be at stake. Instead, the Bears will be battling for their postseason lives.
“I don’t know,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery regarding his team’s chances at making the NCAA tournament. “I think a lot of people are going to be 10-8.”
According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, Colorado would be playing in March Madness as a 10 seed, if the season ended today. Cal, on the other hand, is one of his first four teams out — meaning the NIT tournament is looking like a real possibility for the Bears as the disappointing losses continue to mount.
A three-game losing streak has blindsided Cal, with its most recent loss coming at the hands of the Utes on Wednesday at home. Point guard Justin Cobbs, usually the spark plug, was held to just six points. As a team, the Bears connected on just 39 percent of their shot attempts. The four-point loss dropped Cal into a four-way tie for fifth place in the conference.
Colorado, while currently deadlocked with Arizona State for third in the Pac-12, isn’t in nearly the same precarious situation as the Bears. When star guard Spencer Dinwiddie went down Jan. 12, in a game against Washington, nobody knew if the Buffs would have enough firepower to overcome the loss of his 14.7 points per game. But the Buffs hung tough, owning a 7-6 record since his injury, with four of those six losses coming against conference-toppers Arizona and UCLA.
Cal, meanwhile, has not fared well since its upset over the Wildcats. Since Feb. 1, the Bears are two games below .500. For Montgomery, he understands the recent stretch has taken a toll on his team and his solution is simple.
“Emotionally, we’re just pretty spent,” Montgomery said. “We got to find a way to have fun. We got to find a way to make this fun again.”
Unfortunately for Cal, even a win against Colorado might not be enough to push it into March Madness. With the Pac-12 tournament looming, Las Vegas will most likely be the location of the Bears’ final stand. Because Cal’s chances of winning the Pac-12 tournament and receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament are slim, a win against Colorado paired with a couple of wins in Vegas is Cal’s most likely path to Madness.