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Bubble watch: Cal hoops just outside tournament bracket

Bears look to build on 5-3 conference record

Can the Bears make the Big Dance?
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t look now, but the Bears are currently the second team out of the NCAA Tournament field behind Wichita State if you believe Bracket Matrix. Right behind them are Illinois, Rhode Island, and Michigan.

The good news: Cal’s narrow win over USC kept them within striking distance of the Trojans, who are projected as a 7 seed. The Bears lost all three games to the conference elite thus far (UCLA, Oregon, Arizona) but otherwise have taken care of business in Pac-12 play including Saturday night’s win over Oregon State. All but one of their non-conference losses have come to teams currently in the projected bracket: Virginia is currently a 4 seed while Seton Hall ranks among the 10 seeds. The Bears also defeated Princeton, and the Tigers are in the field by virtue of being the best Ivy League squad so far. The Bears should feel thankful that they didn’t lose either of the overtime games played at home against UC Irvine and Louisiana Tech.

The bad news: The San Diego State loss took place in Sacramento at a neutral site, but the Aztecs are just 11-7 overall. Furthermore, Joe Lunardi of ESPN expects fewer Pac-12 tournament teams than usual to get in. The Bears may end up battling with USC for a fourth and final conference spot. That also lends extra importance to the Cal vs. Utah games. Cal hosts the Utes on February 2, while their March 2 encounter will take place in Salt Lake City. Cal is 12 places ahead of Utah according to Bracket Matrix, but that would presumably get tighter if the Bears fare poorly head-to-head.

The upshot: It won’t be easy, but to some extent the 14-6 Bears control their own destiny. On paper, there are only two extremely difficult contests remaining in the regular season. Those are February 11 against the Wildcats in Tucson and February 22 versus Oregon, which is at least in the friendly confines of Haas Pavilion. Even if you believe that 11 or 12 conference wins are necessary to give Cal a shot at the Big Dance, Cuonzo Martin’s team has the opportunity. If this is Ivan Rabb’s last kick at the can that is March Madness, here’s hoping the Bears make it count.