It's been a tough couple weeks. Three games, all important to Cal's postseason chances, all competitive and seemingly winnable, all ending in losses. Culminating in the most soul-crushing game of the Cuonzo Martin era: the 19-6 Oregon run in the last 4 minutes, the Dillon Brooks shot to the heart, the joy that never came.
It's almost March and, riding a three-game losing streak, hosting the worst team in the conference on Senior Night, the last regular season home game of the 2016-17 season was two things: (1) almost a guaranteed win and (2) a game the Bears could absolutely not afford to lose.
They didn't lose.
This was a contest for a hot second. Oregon State came out shooting well and after 6 minutes they held a 7 point lead. The problem for the Beavers is they can't really score. Not over the course of a whole game and certainly not against one of the best defenses in the nation. Oregon State brought the worst offense in the Pac-12 and the worst offense of of any power conference school into Haas Pavilion Friday night, and Cuonzo Martin defenses squash such teams like bugs without giving them a second thought. Inevitably the #Cuonzogravity took over, and although the Bears took a long time to find an offensive groove (shooting 39% in the 1st half), they so completely pulverized the Beavers defensively and on the boards that they walked into halftime with a 13 point lead, 39-26. Cal built that lead on one expected source, a 10 rebound edge on the offensive glass, and an unexpected one, a +7 edge in turnovers. The 2nd half was a formality. The Bears held the Beavers to a jaw dropping .70 points/possession, their second best defensive effort of the year. Final score: Cal 76 - OSU 46.
It was a night of generations, a night of memories, at Haas Pavilion. The last Mike Montgomery recruiting class was honored as seniors:
Jabari Bird, the star who was never quite that. A shooter who could never quite shoot the lights out, an athlete who could never really get to the rim, a tireless worker who could never stay on the floor the whole season. In retrospect, "McDonald's All-American" seems like an unfair label for him because it implied things we had no right to expect. Jabari Bird has been a very good basketball player at California. A non-defender as a freshman, he turned himself into a plus defender and impact rebounder in four years. A big shot maker, he buried St. Mary's and took over the end of the Utah game--a game that has turned out to be one of the biggest games of the year. A Cal man, he's been a consummate teammate, student athlete, and proud representative of the university for four years. Jabari is an example of why I don't just root for the uniform, I root for the guy.
Sam Singer, the point guard who defined the role. It's hard to run an offense if you're a limited scorer, but Sam made the most of every bit of his ability. It's hard to always be the bridesmaid, but he never complained. He played relentless defense, he doggedly ran the offense and got us into our stuff, and he led. For every minute on the floor during his four years he was tough, he was gutsy, he was a leader.
Roger Moute a Bidias, the late add to the class, and the guy who's always done what's been asked of him. Being a role player, not knowing when your number will be called, but being ready each and every time to bring energy and focus is not easy. In fact, it's really, really hard. I never once saw Roger step in and look like he wasn't ready. I never saw him do anything but play hard. He might sit for two weeks, but you knew when he came in he'd still be ready to swoop in for a board, or come hustling down the floor to chase down a break. He brought it every time.
And he wasn't honored tonight, but I can't help but remember Jordan when I remember that class. I loved him and I still miss him.
When the bulk of the Class of 2013 departs, the only Monty recruit left will be Kameron Rooks. Next year the Cuonzo Martin era starts in earnest and we will begin to see what a team built completely in the Martin image will look like as Cal faces the future.
But Friday night also gave us an opportunity to look deeper into the past, at another generation of Cal players. The 1997 team, the last team to reach a Sweet 16, was honored at halftime. It's a little hard to believe it's been 20 years since a Cal team has had that type of postseason success. And the success, as I reflect back, was quite unexpected. Like this year's team, the 1997 team entered the last two games of the season with 19 wins and their NCAA tournament chances were very much in doubt. They had lost a game in Pullman and superstar Ed Gray in one fell swoop, then backed that loss up with another one at Maples the following week. Heading into the last two games that would ever be played at Harmon Gym, the general consensus was they would need to win both to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday. Sound familiar?
They started the week with an easy drubbing of ASU, then followed that up with an all-time classic: a 79-77 thriller over #12 Arizona. That would be the last game Arizona lost--the Wildcats went on to start an unlikely run all the way to the national championship the following week.
And so, in the shadow of that 1997 team, the parallels are imperfect but they echo. The 2017 Bears enter the last two games of the regular season perhaps (perhaps...) needing to win both to secure their spot in the NCAA tournament. They are also fighting for a 4th place Pac-12 finish and a bye in the Pac-12 tournament. And they face a daunting task: a death trip into the Mountains, where even elite teams go to die. The 1997 Bears faced the challenge and did not stop until 3 weeks later, in an unfortunate matchup with Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, and North Carolina in the Carrier Dome.
How will these Bears fare in their 2 game test? Where will they be in 3 weeks? Will we be celebrating them in 2037?
There is still some story left to write. This is the time of year when legacies are made. Together. We attack.