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Cal Basketball Monday Thoughts: Bears in Position as March Beckons

An analysis of where Cal stands as post-season play draws ever closer, plus a quick look at how a short roster has impacted women's basketball.

This was not a successful shot attempt
This was not a successful shot attempt
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Hey there, Cal fans! Are you feeling good? You should be! The Bears broke their road streak, which was much more a function of who the Bears played (almost entirely tournament teams) than some sort of inherent flaw. Remember when I wrote this a few weeks ago?

Cal will probably go on a winning streak later this year (say, in the next nine games that feature five home games and four road games that are mostly tractable and/or decent match-ups) and if that happens, there will be narratives about how Cal has turned the corner, that Martin figured something our or that certain players redoubled their effort or something. And that may well be true. It also might be true that Cal was simply enjoying a combination of better luck and an easier schedule.

Since that post, the Bears have gone 7-2, with three wins that were close-ish, and four wins that ranged from comfortable to blowouts. Other than the continued development of Jaylen Brown, I don't think a ton has changed about how this team is playing, either strategically or from an individual player perspective. Jaylen's improvement isn't inconsequential. But Cal's recent streak is as much about the easier portion of the schedule, and getting on the right end of a coinflip (most prominently against Arizona).

Still, the Bears had to take care of business. Other than the last 10 minutes of the first half against Colorado, they have. And that means they have put themselves in position to do a bunch of exciting things. What's left this season? The Pac-12 title race, the Pac-12 tournament, and the NCAA tournament. Let's discuss each in turn:

The Pac-12 title race

Here's what Cal has left in the regular season, along with their chances of winning each game and cumulative predicted record, from Kenpom:

The numbers say that Cal has roughly a 50% chance of closing out their home season with a perfect record by sweeping the L.A. schools. It's the desert road trip that looks tough. Arizona is obviously a very tough ask on the road, but 11th place ASU has already notched home wins over OSU and USC and could very much knock off the Bears on senior day.

The simple reality is that Cal has to win out to earn a share of the Pac-12 title. Losing one game would require Arizona and Oregon to both lose twice, plus Utah would have to drop a game. Utah plays three straight at home, and Oregon has two (on paper) gimme home games vs. the Washington schools before the L.A. road trip. There's an outlandish scenario where Cal beats Arizona but loses another game and there's a massive pile up at 12-6, but that's pretty unlikely.

If the Bears DO somehow manage to win out, they would only require one loss from the Ducks. Oregon is projected to win 2.73 games out of 4 the rest of the way, which is a fancy way of saying they are more likely to lose a game than not. Cal all but controls their own destiny, which is all you could have asked for when they came home from Boulder with a 4-5 record.

If you're watching other games, here are a few games with rooting interests towards Cal's championship chances:

Next Week
Arizona at Colorado: Root for Colorado
Arizona at Utah: Root for Arizona if you want an outright title
Oregon vs. Washington State, Washington: Root for the Washington schools, for all the good it will do you

Final week of the regular season
Oregon at UCLA, USC: Root for (ugh) the L.A. schools
Utah vs. Colorado: Root for Colorado
Arizona vs. Stanford: No comment

The Pac-12 Tournament

Because of how incredibly tight the standings are, and the confusion caused by an unbalanced schedule, it's damn near pointless to speculate about potential tournament match-ups at the moment. From Cal's perspective, getting a first round bye is the only carrot worth focusing on, which will come naturally with a push for the regular season title.

Luckily, the Bears are in great position to earn a bye. They currently sit at 4th in the standings, with a two game loss-column lead over two 6th place teams (Colorado, Washington) with very tough closing schedules. That means that Cal only needs to hold off USC. That makes Sunday's game against the Trojans huge for conference tournament seeds. If Cal wins, they have a two game lead and the tie-breaker, which means the only way to fall behind the Trojans would be to lose to UCLA, Arizona, AND Arizona State, while USC wins out. Unlikely. Beat USC, secure a first round bye. That would be a solid achievement in the toughest Pac race since 2008.

The NCAA Tournament

As of late Sunday night, the Bracket Matrix has Cal as a consensus 7 seed. None of the contributing brackets included full weekend results, and many hadn't been updated since prior to Cal's win over Washington. I'm going to predict that when the Matrix gets updated at some point early this week, Cal will rise to a consensus 6 seed. That would certainly comport with Cal's RPI, which will still be in the low 20s after the Wazzu schedule strength hit.

Beating Washington State was important because there's a good chance they will be the last team outside of the RPI top 100 that Cal will face this year. In other words, the Cougars were the last potential bad loss on the schedule. Cal can add RPI top 50 wins against USC and Arizona, and in every game of the Pac-12 tournament. The Bears could finish the season with something like 8 top 50 RPI wins and 16 top 100 RPI wins. That's a lot.

Assuming a first round bye, the Bears have somewhere between 5 and 7 games left before March Madness proper. If we enter dreamland and Cal runs the table, we could be talking something like a 3 seed*. That's really, really unlikely. But even a modestly decent run (say, 3-1, then one or two Pac-12 tournament wins) would likely put Cal in the 4/5 seed range.

That's going to be hard - as we've seen, the Pac-12 has 11 teams that will give you a tough, tough game. Cal needs to set themselves up by finishing off a perfect season at Haas.

*Does that seem too over-the-top optimistic? Consider RPI forecast, which projects Cal's RPI as ~12 if they finish the regular season 4-0, without even considering the bump of a Pac-12 tournament title.

A quick word on women's basketball

The Bears sit at 3-13 in Pac-12 play after a dispiriting road sweep in the mountains. Barring an absurd turnaround, their season will end in Seattle with the Pac-12 tournament - they are three games below .500 and won't be eligible for post-season play.

After a strong non-conference performance, the collapse has been stunning and disheartening, and I've barely written a word about it. Quite frankly, I don't like writing about college sports unless there's something positive to say, and positives have been in short supply this season. If it's not fun for me to write, there's a good guess it's not fun for you to read.

The players and the coaching staff face plenty of work. Work to fix whatever it is that has gone wrong on the court. Work on the recruiting trail, and perhaps within the current roster to keep everybody on board the current direction of the program. It can be tough asking 20 year olds to have the vision to see something positive on the horizon when they are suffering a losing season for probably the first times in their lives.

What has gone wrong? All kinds of things, probably too many to list here. Most primarily, the Bears don't have the bodies to play basketball the way they would like. Nine players on the roster, with one player out for the season with an injury, two others missing time for unspecified non-injury reasons, and other players asking to play well outside of their normal skill set. That's a recipe for disaster with a veteran team, let alone one of the youngest teams in the country.

You can see the impact in Cal's game flow. In Cal's 13 conference losses, they have been collectively outscored by 35 points in the first half. That's only about 3 points/game. The Bears have actually led three times at half, and been tied a couple other times.

In 2nd halves? Cal has been outscored by 112 points, or almost 9 points. The current roster has been asked to absorb too many minutes. Four players are averaging 34 minutes or more, and those minutes are even higher in conference play. The Bears just don't have the legs to stay competitive in a league that is significantly deeper than normal this season.

That doesn't mean that adding players and getting back to a normal rotation will magically heal all issues and return this team to competition atop the Pac-12. But it's almost impossible to get a read on this team because the roster is so short and so imbalanced.

It's going to be a long, critical off-season for everybody involved. But there's too much talent (both on the court, and on the coaching staff) to give up on this group now.

A quick word of thanks, and thoughts on college sports fandom

Many of you are already aware that my grandfather, a Cal alum, recently passed away. Thanks to all of you who reached out with kind words and condolences, on twitter, CGB, or elsewhere.

I often joke in my writing about how none of this really matters. 'This,' of course, being college sports. I often worry that obsessing over the recruitment of 17 year olds, the decision making of 20 year olds while running at top speed with a 250 pound man in chase, or the substitution patterns of a basketball coach are signs of badly misplaced priorities.

But that's not what it's really about. When my grandfather turned 90 years old, his family gathered at what used to be the family house in Berkeley on Piedmont Avenue to celebrate. My grandfather's siblings, both Cal alums themselves, were in attendance. My mother (another alum) booked the Cal band to come and play a few songs. They ran through the Cal song book, finishing with Hail to California.

My grandfather's memory had already begun to fail before that day. Still, he stood and sang Hail with the band, with tears in his eyes. I think back on that moment frequently, as a reminder of why college sports actually does matter to all of us.

Sure, winning and dunks and touchdowns are fun and play a part in our continuing fandom. But sports are really just elements that connect us to a place, a moment in time, and to our friends and family. In this case, Cal songs are something that connects my family, but it applies just as much to our friends, something I'm reminded of every time I sing the Drinking Song.

We all gather online here, or gather in Memorial Stadium in the fall, or gather at Haas next Thursday, not just because we're sports fans, but because it reconnects us to a university and a community that has had such a powerful impact on our lives. Receiving well-wishes from all of you was just another reminder of that truth.

Go Bears, always.