Two days after falling in a close match against Oregon in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, Cal men’s basketball (21-12) barely missed out on reaching the NCAA Tournament, for what would have been its second year in a row at the Big Dance. Listed as one of the four teams to miss out last on a spot in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Bears instead received a No. 1 seed in the National Invitation Tournament, which has become a de facto consolation tournament for true March Madness contention.
Cal will open the tournament at home Tuesday against CSU Bakersfield (22-9) of the Western Athletic Conference. A No. 1 seed means that the Bears would host all of their games until the semifinals, when the tournament will move to Madison Square Garden in New York City. Cal made the quarterfinals of the tournament in 2014 and won it in 1999. In Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin’s first year, 2015, he declined Cal’s NIT bid to the tournament. Now armed with a No. 1 seed, Cal will be competing.
“You look to your players, you look at your team,” Martin said. “I think these guys are still hungry to play some basketball.”
Bakersfield, like Cal, is a slow, defense-oriented squad. It is coming off a 70-60 loss to New Mexico State University in the finals of the WAC Tournament and has held teams to 63 points per game this season.
“CSU Bakersfield is a really good team,” Martin said. “They play tough, they play hard, it will be a tough matchup for our guys against a tough team. They’re tough, they’re hard nosed, they grind you out defensively, they take good shots. They make you work when you’re on offense, and when they’re on offense they make you make bad decisions so they can good shots on the interior and the perimeter.”
The Bears made a serious run in the Pac-12 in early February, winning a memorable double overtime game against Utah and looking like an NCAA Tournament team. But after No. 5 Oregon beat them on their home court after the Bears led by 16, the team continued into freefall, losing to Utah by 30 and to Colorado by eight after only scoring 46 points.
“We lost three home games we should have won: Virginia, Arizona and Oregon, and you don’t lose home games,” Martin said. “When you lose home games, you put yourselves in a vulnerable situation.”
Cal made it to the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, beating Oregon State and Utah on the way to a loss against Oregon. Making the semifinals may have hurt Cal’s chances in the NIT, as senior Jabari Bird suffered a concussion in the game, and his status is unclear.
If the other No. 1 seeds win out, Cal would face Syracuse in the semifinals, and the winner of that matchup would face the winner of Illinois State and Iowa. The Bears are wounded, but there could still be some amount of pride in a good postseason performance if the disappointment of not making the NCAA tournament doesn’t overwhelm the team.