Believe it or not, Cal men’s basketball still has a shot at competing in March Madness. The Bears have no chance of receiving an at-large bid, but they do still have the narrow possibility of winning the Pac-12 tournament — something they have never done before — and earning an auto-bid.
While going to the NCAA tournament is a long shot, the stage is set for the Pac-12 tournament taking place this week in Las Vegas, and even one or two wins can change the narrative around the blue and gold’s season.
Five months ago, Cal was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, but just last weekend, it was fighting for the eighth seed in the conference tournament. The Bears collapsed in a loss against the Beavers, which resulted in a three-way tie for eighth place between Cal, Oregon State and Utah. Due to tiebreaker rules, the Bears were given the 10th seed for the Pac-12 tournament, but an overall 13-18 record is much better than what was expected from the Bears at the beginning of the season.
Cal having seven conference wins is not poor, either, especially considering it only had five in the last two seasons combined. The Bears even managed to complete the Pac-12 season with a 6-3 record at home, which is not an easy feat.
When not in the comforts of Haas Pavilion, however, Cal is a very different team. The Bears have an abysmal 1-10 record on the road with many of those games being blowouts. The biggest issue the Bears face outside of Berkeley is shooting percentage, as Cal shot on average 43.9% from the field during Pac-12 games at home, but on the road that dropped to 35.4%.
Neutral-site games aren’t any better for the Bears, who haven’t won a game at a neutral site since 2017 and have lost 13 in a row, which is bad news for the upcoming conference tournament in Las Vegas. This includes two first-round exits in the Pac-12 tournament in 2018 and 2019 to Stanford and Colorado, respectively.
This year, Cal faces its archrival Stanford again in the opening round of the tournament, and it will be the teams’ third meeting of the season after the two squads split their regular-season matches.
The Cardinal have had the definition of an inconsistent season. They won four in a row to start Pac-12 play before losing six of their next seven, but then they once again had a four-game winning streak before ending the season on a victory-less road trip to the Oregon schools. They, like the Bears, will enter the Pac-12 tournament on a two-game slump.
In fact, because of the way the Pac-12 schedules games in pairs, Cal and Stanford have played an almost identical schedule the entire season. Even more interesting is that among the last 10 games against identical opponents, the Bears and the Cardinal share results in nine of those 10. This game should be, at least on paper, a close one.
Stanford is led by All-Pac-12 forward Oscar da Silva and freshman guard Tyrell Terry (an All-Pac-12 honorable mention), who average 16 and 15 points a game, respectively. Da Silva is currently 10th on the Pac-12 leaderboards in scoring and has garnered significant national attention. In February, he lacerated his head after a collision in a game against Colorado and required stitches, but he was back a week later to score 15 points against Arizona.
Cal relies heavily on Matt Bradley, the Bears’ only scorer who averages in the double digits. Paris Austin, Kareem South and Grant Anticevich provide solid scoring to back up Bradley, but their contributions are largely inconsistent. Recently, Andre Kelly has been putting up more shots and providing a meaningful big-man presence near the basket.
In the Bears’ first two contests against the Cardinal, Cal was able to limit da Silva and Tyrell to below their respective averages, but the deciding factor in the Bears’ victory and loss was turnovers. When they won, the blue and gold only committed seven turnovers to the Cardinal’s 15, but in their loss, they committed 18 turnovers to Stanford’s 11.
Surprisingly, Cal shot about the same in both games — 30.4% in its loss and 32.7% in its win — but its defense was vastly improved at home. The Bears notched seven steals and limited their opponents, shooting to 17% beyond the arc in their win over the Cardinal.
While these factors will come into play, and winning the turnover game and defending well will be vital for Cal, the biggest factor will be its offense. While the Bears may shoot notoriously bad on the road, we have also seen the offense improve throughout the season. Anticevich has been shooting better, and Austin and South have started driving the ball more instead of taking rushed jump shots. The more they can spread the offense beyond just Bradley, the better chance they have at taking home their first Pac-12 win since 2017.
Cal faces Stanford at 6 p.m. PDT at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The first two rounds of the tournament will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Network.
Trilok Reddy covers men’s basketball. Contact him at