In men’s college basketball, postseason discussion begins long before any player dons a practice jersey.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi released his first 2016 NCAA Tournament bracket prediction Aug. 5 — nearly three months before the start of the season — and highly regarded recruits are commonly touted as harbingers of postseason success. With “March Madness” occupying an almost mythic spot in the American sports psyche, what lies at the end of the road for a team is often as important as the season itself to fans and pundits alike.
This type of language certainly held true for Cal’s 2015-16 preseason hype. Months before the season started, experts were talking about a “deep run” and “Pac-12 title” contention, particularly or perhaps entirely because of the additions of then-five star recruits Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, as well as the return of 2014-15 First-Team All-Pac-12 selection Tyrone Wallace.
But with the Pac-12 Tournament finally underway in Las Vegas, it might be a postseason prognosis from Oregon State head coach Wayne Tinkle that has best stood the test of time.
“I don’t think in the preseason you can really pick an order,” Tinkle said to the Los Angeles Times in December regarding the eventual final conference standings.
Given the chaotic conference season and the fact that all but one team is ranked in the top 100 in RPI, the Pac-12 Tournament title looks like nearly anyone’s for the taking.
Seeded third, No. 24 Cal (22-9, 12-6 Pac-12) received a bye and an automatic spot in the quarterfinals Thursday night. It will take on Oregon State (19-11, 9-9) who just beat Arizona State on Wednesday night Arizona State in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. Despite being seeded sixth, the Beavers have notched impressive wins over the course of the season, and could pose a serious threat to the surging Bears. Earlier in the season, Cal suffered a tough loss to the Beavers on the road.
“I think it helps because you’ve been through it,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “It’s always good to go through something, so if it happens again you have some level of prep work.”
Despite their struggles early in the season, however, the Bears currently bring an imposing skillset to their tournament campaign. With the top scoring defense in the Pac-12, Cal’s stalwart system has left opponents often unable to breach the 70-point mark. This is partly thanks to the impressive performance in the post by Rabb, who has the most rebounds per game on the squad with an average of 8.4 per contest.
Meanwhile, Brown — who was recently named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year — leads the Bears on the offensive end with an average of 15.3 points per game, and Wallace follows just behind with an average of 15.2.
If the Bears hope to see success in Vegas, they will need to see those performance stay consistent in a conference that has been anything but predictable.
“It’s a combination of good players, depth, making plays when you get in these types of settings,” Martin said.
Dani Jo Coony covers men’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected].