The middle of February is when we ring the bell. They call it March Madness, but the middle of February is when the ish starts to get real. When the pressure starts to build, and the games take on larger significance, and teams makes statements on the floor about who they are and what they're really about. It's not quite March, but it's definitely not January anymore. It's past the time for development, or lineup juggling, or adjustments. It's past the time to think of trajectory. From now on only one question matters. Did you win?
The middle of February always reminds me of 1993. On February 8, 1993, Lou Campanelli was fired at the end of a 3 game losing streak. A team led by Jason Kidd was just 10-7, and unlikely to make the NCAA tournament. After a pre-ordained win over Cal State Northridge, the Bears returned to conference play on February 14 by traveling to (you guessed it) Maples Pavilion and blowing out a Mike Montgomery coached Cardinal by 25 points. The mid-February turnaround led to the greatest run of Cal basketball in modern history. Using the coaching change as a springboard, the Bears went on to win 12 of 13 games, including an upset of #3 Arizona, and a second round NCAA win over two time defending national champion Duke. The run was not stopped until March 25, by a Kansas team that also took Cal freshman guard Jerod Haase.
Every year around this time I ask myself, is this the year? Is this when we see it again? Do we finally get a magical run like 1993?
February 17. It's the home stretch of the season. Five games left, three on the road.
February 17, sitting at 9-4 in conference with a tenuous grasp on sole possession of 4th place and a first round bye in the conference tournament.
February 17, sitting squarely on the NCAA bubble, facing four weeks of tough, challenging opponents to make our case that we deserve to play for a championship.
February 17 and we go to Maples to play Stanford and Jerod Haase.
You show up for these games and you make your legacy. Or you don't.
Cal showed up to start the game. Strong early man to man defense, combined with quick ball movement led to early dominance. Two Jabari Bird threes along with a couple of buckets from Ivan Rabb got the Bears out to a 19-7 lead. A few minutes later it was 22-11 when the roof caved in. Cal took a series of quick, contested long jumpers. Stanford pounded the ball inside to Reid Travis not once, not twice, but three times. On the third drive to the bucket, Ivan was out of position and, instead of letting it go or attempting to stay vertical, he brought both his hands down in a motion that gets called every single time. Cal lead down to 6 and Ivan with two fouls would sit for the rest of the half.
Did I say the roof had caved in? Oh, no, the roof hadn't collapsed yet. With Ivan on the bench the rest of the half, and with no coherent plan on offense, this is when we were crushed by the roof. Cal came down on their next offensive possession and Charlie Moore drove into traffic by clearing out with his elbow. Offensive foul. The next possession Jabari drove into traffic, stopped, turned, and threw the ball directly to Marcus Allen who converted the turnover into a layup. During the five minute stretch after Ivan sat down, the turnover variety was delightfully diverse. Driving into the lane and kicking it off our own feet. Wrap around passes straight into double teams. Or, my personal favorite: just falling down catching an inbounds pass.
The Bears committed 6 turnovers on the next 11 possessions. Meanwhile, time after time Stanford pounded the ball inside, running their offense through Travis. Time after time they got easy buckets or went to the line. Time after time they converted.
There's no sugarcoating this. With our best player on the bench for almost 9 minutes, Cal played its worst stretch of basketball of the season. They lost poise, they didn't have a plan, and they handed control of the game right back to the Cardinal. At halftime, what had been a 12 point Cal lead was a 4 point deficit.
The 2nd half was more of the same. 9 turnovers after the break. The Cardinal repeatedly pounded the ball to Travis and Dorian Pickens, and they continually got to the line, shooting 13 and 11 free throws, respectively. Meanwhile, Cal shot 10 free throws the whole game, making only 3 of them. After the Bears gave up their last lead at 44-42, they were never really in it again. Final score: Cal 68 - Stanford 73.
No statement. No legacy. No win. Just 20 turnovers and 26 less free throw makes.
Why did this happen?
I hesitate to make too much out of one loss. Prior to tonight, the Bears have been remarkably consistent. They have beaten every team they're supposed to beat. They entered the game in 4th place because they had only lost to the Top 3 teams. As much as we lament the inability to put up a signature win, we must give credit to this team's remarkable level of consistency.
But tonight was an abysmal display of basketball. It's hard to ignore the fact Stanford was able to repeatedly get the ball in good spots for their "scorers," while Cal's elite player couldn't even get touches. It's hard to ignore 20 turnovers. It's hard to ignore the fact our bigs--usually expert at position defense--repeatedly brought their hands down to contest shots or put two hands on their man in post defense when the referees were calling that every single time.
It's hard to imagine the magical run we're all waiting and hoping for will actually materialize.
After the game Cuonzo blamed his team for not taking care of the ball. He blamed his team for not attacking the zone properly and not flashing. He blamed Charlie and Jabari for bad floor games. He blamed his bigs for playing bad defense on Travis. He blamed Ivan for a lack of discipline and focus. He explained his decision to sit Ivan for 9 minutes as "game planning."
Certainly, there's a lot of blame to go around. And many of the things we saw tonight were one-offs. Maybe we won't see them going forward. But if we do, it's also fair to ask where the buck stops. Because the one person I've never heard Cuonzo blame is himself.
This was a chance. A mid-February opportunity. You don't get those back and you don't get many more like them. If we lose a few more of these, we lose the season along with it.
On the other hand, this was not the last opportunity. Cal will win at least one more of its conference games, and they will have a solid chance in each of the remaining three. I don't know if this team has a run in it. The data don't really support that possibility, and if you're that kind of fan, then you'd be justified in giving up hope now.
But I know that we get Oregon on Wednesday, and Senior Night on Friday, and that there are still at least five more battles to be fought. I know that these players are going to give everything they can to fight hard and well. I know that I'm proud of them.
And I know that the reason we call it magic is because we can't explain it or predict it. Dream. Believe. Go Bears.