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Ragnarok's Assorted Basketball Thoughts For A Thursday

Plenty has been said about last Saturday's thrilling, conference-clinching victory over Arizona State, and I'm decidedly late to the party with this post of random basketball observations and musings.  Still here's a few nuggets that I haven't seen articulated anywhere else

- The Bears have had weekend sweeps before in this conference season, but last week's sweep of the Arizona schools was the most complete performance Cal has displayed in at least a couple months, when the Bears went 3-0 in beating Utah Valley, UC Santa Barbara and Stanford by a combined 91 points, and given the level of competition, I'd go ahead and call it the best week the Bears have had all year.

- With a team whose rotation runs only 7-8 players deep most nights, that's doubly impressive.  Normally, you'd expect teams with such a shallow bench to fade down the stretch as the starters wear down, but if anything, this team has only gotten better the second time through the Pac-10.

- In particular, I'd point to the Arizona State game as an exemplar of a complete team victory, the sort that you could only hope to produce with four senior starters.  Normally, the Bears go as Jerome Randle goes, and when he's not denting the scoreboard, the Bears are struggling.  That's not to say that Randle was bad, just that his final line (7 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 turnovers) was rather pedestrian, and yet the Bears ran a rather efficient offense (62 points in 54 possessions, 49% shooting).  In fact, no one player's line was that impressive (Boykin and Christopher led the Bears in scoring with just 14), but the total sum definitely was.

- In particular, I want to highlight the Bears' 17 assists, tallied by eight different players, to against a season-low 6 turnovers.  Moreover, those 17 assists occurred on just 25 field goals, meaning that Cal's offense moved the ball so well that they tallied an assist on more than 2/3rds of their scores -- a season high.

- For a team that likes to run and who hates zone defenses, the Bears were also impressive in playing ASU's game and taking their best shot.  In terms of possessions, it was definitely the slowest game they've played all year, and while 62 points scores was a season-low for Cal, they won going away because giving up just 46 points was also a season-low.  The Bears worked their offense, (mostly) didn't let themselves get frustrated by the zone (a five-possession stretch near the end of the first half, in which Cal turned the ball over twice and let the Sun Devils build their last 4-point lead was really the lone exception), and when crunch time came, they ratcheted up their defense to another level.

- I could continue to gush about the defense, so I will.  The individual efforts by guys like Gutierrez and Christopher was obvious to anyone watching, and Jamal Boykin keeping the bigger Eric Boateng from setting up shop in the paint was huge (and getting Boateng to commit a three-second violation in the paint -- with the ball! -- was quite impressive).  But it was the team defense as a whole that stood out to me.  The help defense from everyone on the floor was active and timely, and though ASU was eventually able to break it down at times, they worked *hard* to get there.  It's rare enough to see a shot-clock violation, but two in one half?  If the Bears could play like this every game, who knows how far they could go.

- Finally, is it any coincidence that the Bears played perhaps their finest, most consistent game of the year in front of (by far) the best crowd they've had all year?

Of course, that's all behind us; what's in front of us is the game at Stanford this weekend, followed by the Pac-10 tournament, and while the Pac-10 title is theirs, there's still plenty to play for for the Bears.

- A win over the Cardinal or a loss by the Sun Devils this week will clinch the outright Pac-10 title for the Bears.  Probably the best chance for ASU to stumble is when they host USC tonight, but their game vs. UCLA on Saturday is scheduled for 1pm, so the Bears should know what they need to do before halftime at Maples.

- A win at Maples would also be Mike Montgomery's first in six years, and would give Cal their first season sweep over the 'Furd since 1993.  Moreover, it would be the first time Cal swept the Cardinal in both football and men's basketball in the same school year since 1982-83, before any of the current players were born, and when Mike Montgomery was still coaching at Montana.

- Such a sweep would be impressive, but the Bears have already done that to Arizona State and Washington State this year.  In fact, Cal has completely owned Washington State in '09-'10, sweeping them in football and both men's AND women's basketball.

- Of course, the Bears have plenty of time do to scoreboard watching between now and then, and it's only natural to look ahead to potential matchups in next week's conference tournament at the Staples Center.  In one sense, there isn't really a team that's been a nemesis to the Bears this season -- they've beaten every team in the Pac-10 this year, something they've only done one other time since 1997 (Leon Powe's 2006 team).

- In another sense, I really, really want the Bears to avoid Oregon State in this tournament; it's a bad matchup stylistically for the Bears, and even if they win, watching Oregon State play basketball makes me want to gouge my eyes out.  Cal fans should definitely be rooting for the Beavers this week to win a game and stay out of the 8-9 matchup, but they should probably root for the fightin' Hope'n'Changers to lose a game as well, lest they move up and sneak into the 4-5 matchup.  Oregon State, at 7-9, is just a game behind Arizona and UCLA, who are currently tied for fourth in the conference, and since they play each other tonight, the loser will finish no better than 9-9 in conference, possibly 8-10.  Since OSU has swept Arizona this year but was swept by UCLA, we should root for Arizona to beat UCLA tonight, then for both teams to win on Saturday.

- Most likely, the participants in 8-9 game will be some combination of Stanford, Washington State, and Oregon.  Personally, I think Oregon is the best matchup for the Bears, but all three of those teams are ones that Cal *should* beat.  Washington State faces a tough road to stay out of last place; after visiting the tenacious Beavers tonight, they visit historic MacArthur Court for Oregon's final game in that venerable old gym.  A very reasonable set of circumstances (Cal beats Stanford, Washington sweeps the Oregon schools, Oregon beats Washington State and Washington State wins at Oregon State) would end in a four-way tie for last place at 7-11.  How does the seeding shake out in such a case?  I'm humble enough to say that I have no idea.

- Finally, in case you were wondering, No. 1 seeds have won 4 of the past 8 Pac-10 tournaments.  Twice, however, the No. 1 seed was ousted in the first round -- in 2003, UCLA took out a disinterested Arizona squad that was already looking ahead to the NCAA tournament, and in 2007 Ayinde Ubaka led the Bears to a memorable overtime upset of UCLA in the opening round.

- OK, I do have one more thing to get off my chest, but it turns out Ken Pomeroy already said it as well as I could in a blog post last weekend:

5) Mainly, I’m opposed to using a single ranking (and bastardization of it) as the sole objective measure used in the committee’s deliberations. Regardless of how you wish to select the 34 at-large teams, it is foolish in 2010 to rely on one system to provide a foundation to do this.  I realize the committee gets more information than just the RPI, but data on the "team sheets" are completely based on RPI and if you read any bracket projection, the sole focus is RPI. Hey, I wouldn’t even want the committee to use my ratings exclusively. I currently have BYU higher than anybody and Villanova about as low as anybody. They are outliers that are corrected by the other systems out there.

And if the NCAA insists on using RPI, then use the team’s ranking directly. If New Mexico is getting credit for beating the 23rd best team when they have a win over Cal, it doesn’t follow that you aren’t allowed to assume that Cal is the 23rd best team when you evaluate the Bears.