With 3 conference championships won by Cal's Olympics sports in the past two weeks: women's and men's swimming and diving winning the Pac-12 and men's track and field winning the MPSF, can Cal men's basketball team (19-12, 10-8) follow suit and bring home their 1st Pac-12 tournament title in program history?
Let's start by taking a look at the Pac-12 Tournament Bracket.
Thanks to how the tie-breakers are applied for the 5 Pac-12 teams tied for 3rd with a 10-8 Conference record, Bears have the 4th seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. The most important aspect of having the 4th seed is that 1st round bye. Instead of having to win 4 games in 4 days to win the conference title, the Bears only need to win 3 games in 3 days (with again a limited rotation that is without big man freshman Kameron Rooks who is lost to injury for the rest of the season).
Also very important may be how the Bears avoided having to play on a Wednesday. Not that the Bears may play better on Thursdays, but they really struggled in most Wednesday games this season.
Listen to Coach Mike Montgomery on Monday's press conference:
Coach Montgomery "I think a lot of teams in our league are capable of being represented at @marchmadness and we’re certainly among them."
— Cal Men's Basketball (@CalMensBBall) March 10, 2014
When asked about his bench, Coach Montgomery does admit that the team isn't "as deep or as physical as [he] would like to be". Given the importance of winning the first game of the tournament to cement the Bears' NCAA chances, I would think that Monty would ride his starters for as long as they could go.
QUARTER-FINAL: Thursday, March 13 - 2:30 PM PT on Pac-12 Networks
Importance: NEARLY ESSENTIAL
Likely quarter-final opponents for the Bears? A rematch with the Colorado Buffaloes (21-10, 10-8). Kenpom has Colorado as a 76% favorite in their 1st round game against USC.
In the only meeting between the two teams this past Saturday:
How much does Colorado need this game? Depending on which bracket projection that you see, Colorado is either in or on the bubble. Before this game, they are in a better position than Cal for a tournament berth. While Colorado will likely remain ahead of the Bears in the RPI even if they lose this game, a recent 0-2 record against Cal might make the committee pick the Bears over them.
Who is the favorite? It's a coin flip in my mind. Kenpom has Colorado as a 53.6% favorite, but that's computer calculation that doesn't take full consideration how special elevation is for Colorado's home court.
Alternative scenario: There is a chance that USC Trojans (11-20, 2-16) may pull an upset in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament on Wednesday. USC only have two Pac-12 wins and they are against the Bears at home and Wazzu on the road. Even in the Cal-USC rematch in Berkeley, USC had a 3 point lead and the half. The worst case scenario and a surefire way to drop Cal completely off the bubble would be a loss to USC.
While Kenpom has Cal as a 73.2% chance winner over USC on neutral court, USC is a bad matchup for Cal. More importantly, a win over USC would not carry as much weight as a win over Colorado, should the Bears only be able to win one this week.
SEMI-FINAL: Friday, March 14th - 6 PM PT on Pac-12 Networks
Importance: IF YOU WOULD LIKE A GOOD NIGHT SLEEP BEFORE SELECTION SUNDAY (OR POSSIBLY AVOID A TRIP TO DAYTON)
Likely opponent: Arizona (28-3, 15-3), No.4 in the country in human polls
Bears and Arizona met twice this year. This is the more memorable game:
How much would Arizona want to win this one:
Thanks to their upset loss to Oregon to close out the regular season, there may be some doubts as to whether Arizona should get a 1 seed. RPI and other metrics still have Zona as the best team in the country even after a loss to Oregon. Unfortunately for the Bears, if Zona believes that they need to prove themselves more, they may take this game to be more important than just a tune-up. Besides, they probably don't want to lose to Cal again.
Who is the favorite: Arizona. Kenpom has them as a 86.6% favorite on a neutral court against Cal. Bears have more to gain by winning this game, so I would probably give the Bears slightly better odd of 80%.
Washington (17-14, 9-9) or Utah (20-10, 9-9) are the other teams that could potentially be the Bears' semifinal opponent. Bears swept the Huskies this season, winning their most impressive home showing and then turned a close game in the second half into a rout. Bears only faced Utah once this year, and it was that very unfortunate loss last Wednesday.
Kenpom has Utah (33rd team in its ranking) as a 65.1% favorite on neutral court (a number that is also greatly skewed by Utah's very real home court advantage that was not quantified). Against Washington, Cal is a 58.1% favorite. UW has had a history of overachieving in the Pac-10/12 tournament, however; although those teams are more talented than this year's squad for UW.
FINAL: Saturday, March 15th - 3 PM PT on Fox Sports 1
Importance: Probably not that much, it would be cool to win a Pac-12 tournament for the 1st time in school history but it may not (depending on the opponents) change the Bears' potential seed in the NCAA tournament that much.
Likely opponent: UCLA? I actually don't think UCLA will make it to the Pac-12 tournament finals. While they are still my favorite to come out of that side of the bracket, the field of ASU, Stanfurd, or Oregon combined should have higher odds.
How much does UCLA want this one: Not very much. UCLA Coach Steve Alford has been already expressed how he only sees this tournament as a NCAA tune-up. I do not expect UCLA to go all out and exhaust themselves to win this tournament.
Kenpom has UCLA as a 66.9% favorite against the Bears on a neutral court.
How much would another team want this one: Unless it is a really big surprise team like Oregon State or Washington State, you would expect that team to also have essentially wrapped up a NCAA bid by making it this far. I would not be surprised if the Pac-12 final consists of two very tired teams that play subpar basketball for most of the game.
If it is ASU: Bears would love to avenge the two losses to ASU. Kenpom has ASU as a 63.2% favorite, however.
If it is Stanfurd: Kenpom has Furd as a 60.3% favorite.
If it is Oregon: For whatever reason, the Bears have owned Oregon in the Mike Montgomery era. Even though Kenpom has the Ducks as more of a favorite than ASU or Furd (Ducks have a 68.6% chance of winning), they would be my preference in the optimal scenario.
With all that said, my favorite to win the Pac-12 tournament is ARIZONA. They are simply the best of the Pac.
My darkhorse to win the Pac-12 tournament is OREGON. Besides how the computers love them, the Ducks are on a 7 game winning streak.
Check out the highlights for the Bears' three seniors.
How far can the Cal Bears' seniors lead the team in this year's Pac-12 Tournament?
Justin Cobbs on going into the Pac-12 Tournament "I feel pretty confident, understanding that guys are more familiar with their roles."
— Cal Men's Basketball (@CalMensBBall) March 10, 2014
We shall all find out in a few days.