Pac-12 tournament shootaround: Bears buckle down for upset bid

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WNBA superstar Sue Bird once said, “There’s been so many stories throughout the league where teams have started off poorly and ended up in the Finals. Or teams starting out great and not making the playoffs.” In short, playoffs are a different beast entirely, where teams get a chance to rewrite the narrative.

The Bears finished the regular season 1-15, but they still have a chance to make up for it in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. As the No. 12 seed, they will face off against No. 5-seeded Oregon State in a do-or-die match this Wednesday at 1 p.m. While Cal’s progression throughout the season erased some doubt, a 1-15 record certainly leaves questions to be answered.

What lessons can the Bears learn from their stronger end to the season, and how do they carry those lessons forward into the Pac-12 tournament?

Justin Kim: Aside from basketball aspects, such as keeping turnovers low, the Bears’ perseverance should be their main takeaway from this season. In many blowout losses this season, Cal outscored its opponent in the second half or fourth quarter. Many teams would typically throw in the towel, but head coach Charmin Smith has clearly instilled a “never say never” attitude in the Bears, which should do them wonders in the future. The blue and gold have had their backs against the wall this entire year, so if they can carry over the same grit they flashed towards the end of the season into the tournament, they have a real chance to make some noise in Las Vegas.

Benjamin Coleman: The Bears should learn that when they’re on, they can compete with any team in the Pac-12. This isn’t the same team from earlier in the season that suffered blowout loss after blowout loss to Pac-12 foes. Since the arrival of freshman Mia Mastrov and their return from a COVID-19-induced pause, the blue and gold have looked like a brand new squad. Cal showed it could keep up when a string of competitive losses finally culminated in the team’s first victory of the season Feb. 21. If the Bears can replicate the high level of play and toughness they showed in their lone win, then perhaps they will play spoiler in the tournament.

What will Cal have to do to beat Oregon State, and what is your prediction for the matchup?

JK: Playing an opponent a few times before a playoff matchup can be helpful, but unfortunately, Cal’s two games against Oregon State this season were postponed. In order to beat the Beavers, the Bears must be nearly flawless on both sides of the floor. On the offensive end, they average 21.2 turnovers per game and give up an average of 22.8 points per game off of said turnovers. Simply put, it is extremely difficult to win if a good chunk of an opponent’s offense comes through their defense. Oregon State has four players who average double-digit scoring and as a team, the Beavers shoot a sizzling 42% from three. Chasing its opponents off of the three-point line and into tough, contested midrange shots will likely be Cal’s plan of attack. Oregon State’s hot three-point shooting and steady offense should ultimately be too much for the blue and gold to handle. I’ll say the Beavers walk off with a 78-62 victory.

BC: Cal draws a tough matchup in Oregon State. While the 9-6 Beavers may only be the No. 5 seed, they look to be peaking at the right time, winning six of their last seven outings and closing their regular season with back-to-back wins over No. 10 UCLA and No. 14 Oregon, two of the top teams in the Pac-12. The Beavers are led by the dynamic duo of senior guard Aleah Goodman and sophomore forward Taylor Jones. Goodman sits in fifth in conference scoring, boasting an average of nearly 17 points per game and shoots 52.6% from beyond the arc, good enough to be the best three-point clip in the Pac-12. Jones, meanwhile, has the highest field goal percentage in the conference at 59% and also brings down the most rebounds in the Pac-12 with an average of 8.7 per game. Armed with Goodman’s ability to score from deep and Jones’ dominance inside, the Beavers have one of the most potent offenses in the conference. The blue and gold similarly entered last year’s tournament as No. 12 seed and stunned fifth-seeded Arizona State, and they’ll surely look to capture that magic again. Ultimately, however, a rolling Beavers squad will likely be too much for the newly competitive Bears to overcome.

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

JK: While it would be fascinating if Cal were to pull off a Cinderella run, it’s hard to bet against No. 4 Stanford. The Cardinal are the top seed in the Pac-12 and arrive in Las Vegas on the heels of an 11-game winning streak. Stanford also possesses arguably the deepest roster in the Pac-12, with four players who average double digits and two different players shooting over 40% from three. To put the Cardinal’s dominance into context, Arizona, who is second in the conference, has lost to Stanford by an average margin of 20.5 points per game this season. Frankly, no team has the offensive or defensive firepower to match the Cardinal, so Stanford’s biggest opponent will likely be itself.

BC: Although Stanford enters as the outright favorite, there are no shortage of contenders in the Pac-12. No. 9 Arizona is led by perhaps the best player in the conference in senior guard Aari McDonald, the Pac-12’s leading scorer. No. 10 UCLA, meanwhile, relies on the tandem of Michaela Onyenwere and Charisma Osborne, who rank third and fourth in the conference in scoring, respectively. The duo forms perhaps one of the best 1-2 punches in the nation. No. 19 Oregon, the reigning Pac-12 champion, is a well-coached and experienced roster that shouldn’t be overlooked. The aforementioned Beavers have already beaten both the Bruins and the Ducks. All of this is to say that the Pac-12 is loaded with multiple national championship contenders. Combine this with the unpredictable results we’ve seen this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I can’t see heavily favored Stanford winning the conference tournament this year; there are simply too many talented threats. My money’s on UCLA.

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