This is easily the most difficult post-game recap I've ever had to write in any Cal sport. Before the season began I thought the conference championship was the barometer of a successful season. When the entire conference turned out to be significantly worse than expected, it became an even more realistic and urgent goal. When Richard Solomon was lost for the season, it became the best way to ensure a happy ending to the season.
And so I invested all of my expectations into winning the conference, and every step of the way I was so sure it would happen. Everything I saw with my eyes, everything I read, all seemed to point to the conclusion that the Bears were the class of the Pac-12. Even when Washington somehow escaped against WSU and the Bears lost in Colorado, I still thought they would earn a share of the title. My confidence on Sunday morning was bordering on the irrational. This group of players, these seniors, with a full week of rest, with a 2nd chance - there's no way they would lose.
And then they lost. To Stanford. The same Stanford team that lost to Utah, that had played probably two good games against decent opposition in 2012.
And the reason this one hurts, the reason we've all invested so much emotion into this team is because they're so damned likable. I don't really want to spend hundreds of words slamming this team when they're down, in part because they've already done it themselves:
"Not a single one of us was ready to play. I don't know what (more) motivation you need in a game like this. I don't know why we're not ourselves anymore.
That's as depressing a quote as can be about what is ultimately an unimportant recreational spectator sport. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen for Harper most of all. I don't really question their motivation and effort like Harper is, and it really bothers me that he might think that he somehow didn't give enough to this team.
I can't begin to list all of the things the Bears did that hurt them. Passes to no one, bad inbound defense, random drops of passes and rebounds, missed free throws . . . as I watched the game I found myself hiding my face in my hands over and over again as I watched the Bears make mistakes that they rarely if ever made all season long.
Frankly, I wasn't especially impressed with Stanford. Their defensive strategy seemed to be decidedly negative (see photo above), and they earned each of their 24 fouls. That intentional physicality both kept Cal in the game via the free throw line but ultimately won Stanford the game by destroying any sense of offensive flow for the Bears. It was catenaccio, it was painful to watch, and it worked. Be thankful that the graduation of Zimmermann (His two 3s yesterday represent 2/7ths of all the 3s he's hit in his four year career), Owens, Trotter and Mann means that Stanford won't have so many fouls to throw around to continuing playing like that.
The other main problem was Jorge. Look, Jorge is a Cal legend, and he will rightly go down as a fan favorite and the key player as Monty transitioned from Ben Braun's players to his own. But he is not the Pac-12 player of the year. Pac-12 players of the year don't pick up their 3rd personal foul in the first half by committing a technical foul in a must-win game. Maybe he was goaded, maybe the ref over-reacted, I don't care. It just can't happen.
I don't know what's going on with Jorge, though Monty as implied a few times now that he's basically psyching himself out.:
Jorge is really fighting demons right now and isn't able to get much done. We need Jorge. He defended extremely well. He gets himself in trouble, he gets frustrated -- we need him.
That quote hurts almost as much as Harper's. It feels like what makes Jorge so great - his unbelievable desire to win - has become his own worst enemy on the court. If Cal is going to make the NCAA tournament he has to overcome whatever it is that's wrong. Like Monty said, we need him.
The 'other' reason I wanted the regular season title (the reasons that wasn't glory and dominion)? This team doesn't seem like a tournament team. Already you have to wonder if back-to-back-to-back poor performances indicates a tired team. So winning three straight in L.A. seems unlikely, and winning two games in two days against the best teams Cal has seen since UNLV and SDSU doesn't seem promising either. This was the attainable goal, and now it's gone.
It wasn't supposed to be the script. There is basketball still left. And who knows? Maybe there's a plot twist left that none of us saw coming, something that could erase this game from our memory. But that possibility is looking unlikely at the moment.