Welcome to the tournament of losers

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They’re playing a game Wednesday, and maybe even a few more after that, but for all intents and purposes, the Cal men’s basketball season is over.

Thinking back on where these guys were just weeks ago, it’s pretty crazy they’re preparing to host a first-round NIT game against Utah Valley. And just looking at their resume in a vacuum, it’s possible to conclude that they don’t deserve their fate. They were the first team to knock off undefeated No. 1 Arizona. They took out Stanford and Oregon, two tournament teams, on the road. There are a couple of bad losses — the USC game, a nonconference loss to UCSB — but overall, their resume points to a team that belongs as a 10 or 11 seed.

But your resume does not exist in a vacuum. It is subject to the ebb and flow of time, and Cal picked just about the worst time to crash and burn. They lost nine of their last 14 and haven’t looked like a tournament team since that Arizona game February 1. Now, they find themselves in what North Carolina State legend David Thompson once called “a loser’s tournament.”

These next one or two or three games should be seen as a farewell to Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon — two guys who put together impressive careers for the university — and a look forward to the 2015 Bears’ tournament chances.

The answer to that question has to start with Jabari Bird. Bird entered Cal with sky-high expectations. People see the success players like Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins find in their inaugural college seasons and expect every freshman to be ready to go right off the bat. It’s important to remember that those dudes are once-in-a-generation players. The norm is to struggle, and it’s important to remember Bird was actually playing at or near these guys’ levels before his injury derailed him at a crucial time.

Head coach Mike Montgomery attributed Bird’s struggles postinjury to a lack of reps, and that seems to be a reasonable explanation. He often looked out-of-sync on offense, only engaging if forced to involve. With an offseason of health, reps and a season of experience under his belt, Bird’s combination of size, athleticism and shooting ought to make him one of the better players in the Pac-12. If he can channel the aggressiveness and confidence he displayed preinjury during the NIT tournament, it will be an encouraging sign for Cal’s hopes moving forward.

But all returning players need to make varying degrees of progress to keep Cal competitive in the short term. One of the toughest jobs next year will be to replace Cobbs’ play-making. Wallace has the potential, but will have to work hard on his court vision and shooting to keep defenses honest on the perimeter.

Solomon’s rim protection will also be a challenge. Luckily, Cal will (likely) retain David Kravish, who will be returning for his senior season. Kravish is an excellent interior defender, but he has little depth behind him.

Scoring, ballhandling, rim protection — Cal is losing a large portion of some of the most important aspects of its team. Its actual season might be over, but that doesn’t mean these next few games are worthless. It’s the first time for Bird, Wallace, Kravish and others to show that the 2015 Bears have a fighting chance of avoiding their predecessor’s fate.

Michael Rosen covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.