Pac-12 tournament shootaround: Cal heads to Las Vegas

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What can the Bears learn from their regular season finale victory over Arizona, and how do they carry those lessons into the Pac-12 tournament?

William Cooke: The Bears should know now that they are capable of playing defense. In the four games leading up to its matchup with Arizona, Cal allowed an average of 80 points per game. Against the Wildcats, Cal allowed 54. The difference was that Cal forced Arizona to take lots of three-point attempts, 16 to be exact, of which the Wildcats only made one. Against Arizona State and beyond, the Bears cannot get bullied in the paint. If they can force teams to take long jumpers instead of layups, they can hang with the best.

Benjamin Coleman: The Arizona win proves that the Bears are capable of playing with any team in this conference. They may sport a dreadful 3-15 conference record, but they’ve beaten the No. 13 team in the country and pushed No. 8 UCLA to overtime. The Bears had a disastrous start to Pac-12 play, but they may be getting hot at just the right time. Add in the fact that all three of their conference wins have been on the road, and Cal should have confidence that they can travel to Las Vegas and potentially shock the Pac-12.

Tim Sun: The takeaway from Sunday is that the Bears have the pieces in place to be an upset-ready squad. With a go-to scorer down the stretch in senior Jaelyn Brown, a steady hand at the point in Leilani McIntosh and an X-factor shooting threat off the bench in Jazlen Green, Cal showed an ability to go on runs and make big plays down the stretch. Moving forward, Cal needs to know that the offense might come from anyone, so defense will be the key. Their zone and box-and-one looks threw Arizona off, but Arizona State brings a more well-rounded look. It won’t be box-and-one, but Cal should continue to employ a mix of defensive schemes to contain the Sun Devils.

Michael Brust: The biggest lesson the Bears learned is that victory requires a team effort top to bottom. Cal does not have the luxury of star power, as its go-to scorer and veteran leader Brown is a tier below the elite players in the conference. Instead, the win condition for the blue and gold is the effort of the ensemble. In Cal’s three conference victories this season, the Bears’ bench has scored 17, 21 and 28 points, respectively. Those are significant totals for a team that goes through consistent dry spells when starters sit. It will take the whole village for Cal to nab an upset.

How do you think Cal will fair this tournament and why?

WC: I do expect Cal to play Arizona State a lot closer this time around, but a first-round exit is the most likely scenario. The 23 point loss on Friday is a pretty solid indication of how they’ll fare against the same competition. The Bears are playing the best basketball they have all season, so I’d be surprised if ASU embarrasses them again, but a quarterfinal berth may simply not be on the cards.

BC: Cal has a tough opening draw against the No. 24 Sun Devils. The Bears lost to these very same Sun Devils 77-54 last weekend in their only matchup this season, but ironically, that recent blowout loss may play in Cal’s favor. ASU might overlook the Bears in favor of tougher potential upcoming matchups, so if Cal can catch ASU sleeping, they might have a chance at an upset. Still, making a run this tournament will be a Herculean task for a young Cal team. I expect them to fall just short in a close first round tilt with the Sun Devils.

TS: It’ll be a tough run for the Bears. First up is Arizona State, one of just two squads to knock off No. 3 Oregon this season. While Cal did pull off the upset against Arizona on Sunday, the blue and gold simply don’t have the experience to make a deep run. The best Cal can hope for is to gain some much-needed big game exposure for its cast of promising freshmen and hope to combine that with a star-studded incoming class to make a run next year.

MB: After the start the Bears had this season, you would think a first-round victory was likely, but it became apparent in conference play that this young Cal squad with a new head coach lacked the poise, maturity and skill to compete among the conference’s best. A first-round exit is all but inevitable and, barring injury or acts of God, the Sun Devils should dominate. This was the expectation for Cal heading into the season, and as much as the blue and gold faithful may have hoped for a better campaign, the Bears should be focused on building a better foundation for the future. This game is about experience and not much more.

What will the Bears have to do differently against the Sun Devils this time around?

WC: The key to beating Arizona State — the key to beating any team, for that matter — is the same as it has been all season long for Cal: a productive bench. In their last meeting a few weeks ago, the Sun Devils’ bench outscored the Bears’ by 25. When the Bears’ second-stringers play well, however, it’s a different story. In their two most recent Pac-12 wins, Cal’s bench has outscored the opposition’s 49-16. Cailyn Crocker, Green and Evelien Lutje Schipholt need to match ASU’s bench blow-for-blow to have a shot at making it past the first round.

BC: The Bears need their senior leader Brown to step up and use her experience to take control of their first round match up with ASU. Brown is a legitimate star and when she’s on, Cal can hang with anyone in the Pac-12. As she goes, so goes the entire team. Her impact was felt first hand when she hit a game winning dagger against Arizona. When she goes quiet though, the team struggles, seen in the measly 9 points she put up in their last matchup with the Sun Devils — a blowout loss. That cannot happen again if the Bears hope to have any chance of knocking off Arizona State. Brown will likely be the best player on the floor against ASU (Her 14.5 ppg is significantly ahead of ASU’s leading scorer Ja’Tavia Tapley’s 11.5 pgg). If she puts the team on her back and takes charge of the game, Cal will have a chance to win.

TS: Cal will need to put together 40 minutes of sustained team defense and ball control. Cal found success in the first quarter by playing aggressive defense and forcing turnovers against Arizona State, ending the frame trailing by just two. In the second quarter, however, the tide turned, and nine turnovers from the Bears left them reeling for the rest of the game. This time, Cal needs to sustain that swarming defense all game and take care of the ball, to just have a chance. It’s a tall task, but as the No. 12 seed, the Bears will need another near-perfect performance to prolong this season.

MB: Rebounding, defense and free-throw percentage. Those are the three key indicators of Cal’s success. In their upset win against Arizona, the Bears outrebounded the Wildcats 42-34 — a significant margin for a team that ranks seventh in the Pac-12 in boards per game. Similarly, defense has to be a priority for the blue and gold, who stand no chance in a shootout with their 65.7 points per game average. The Bears best chance for an upset is a chippy, grind it out game that gets them to the line. They shot 27 free throws against Arizona and 29 in their win over Utah, and if Cal wants to shock the conference they’ll need to muster all they can at the charity stripe.

Who do you think will ultimately claim the Pac-12 title this season?

WC: Oregon. Not a whole lot needs to be said. The two next-best bets — No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 3 seed Stanford — have both struggled as of late. UCLA lost to a poor Washington team a little over a week ago, and Stanford has lost two of its last three, albeit to tough competition. The Ducks have not lost since early February, when they fell to a red-hot Arizona State team in Tempe. Plus, Sabrina Ionescu.

BC: Oregon is absolutely the favorite, but people are overlooking that the Pac-12 is arguably the best conference in women’s basketball with six teams ranked in the top 25. Each of those six teams believe they have a legitimate shot at the title, and with how wide-open the Pac-12 has been this season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some upsets. UCLA, led by the transcendent Michaela Onyenwere, is my pick to bring home the conference title.

TS: It’ll be Oregon. In terms of talent and experience, no team has as many pieces as Oregon. As long as the Ducks can keep their focus for every game and not look too far ahead to the NCAA tournament, they’ll take home the trophy.

MB: I’m not sold on Oregon. Don’t get me wrong, they are obviously the favorite heading in, but Sabrina Ionescu and company still have to prove they’re capable of winning the important games. The Ducks’ worst basketball has been away from Eugene, where they lost to a then-No. 8 Louisville and Arizona State. Their narrowest victories, such as an eight point win over Stanford, also occurred on the road. Given Oregon’s loss last year in the conference title game and their stumbles on the road, an upset is possible. I would still put my money on the Ducks, however.

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