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The torture of irresolution

An era of Cal basketball (functionally) closes, leaving behind more questions than answers

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Conference Tournament Oregon vs Cal Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

For your viewing pleasure, Cal will play in the NIT starting tomorrow, and CGB will have previews and recaps as always. Nevertheless, here is one man’s take on a season that is otherwise over.

Some seasons (though hardly many) are definitive positives. 1993. 1997. 2010. Others are definitive failures. 2008. 2015. Everything in the 70s.

Most everything else exists somewhere in between. There’s good, there’s bad. There’s success, there’s failure. It’s the inevitable result of any endeavor that deliberately picks a winner and a loser from every date on the schedule.

And yet I feel zero resolution for the 2016-17 Bears. More than that, I don’t feel any resolution to the Ivan Rabb era. And that will be a discomfort that we’ll all have to get used to.

The story of last year is well worn. Cal combines new talent with returning talent, struggles early, turns the corner mid-season, suffers a series of close, painful losses, then implodes in March with key contributors missing.

And then Ivan decided to come back. This was what I wrote after Ivan decided to stay at Cal:

But this was the team with three NBA-level talents, the team that was supposed to win the conference, or make the Sweet 16, or both. We all knew going in that Ty, Ivan, and Jaylen were going to be gone at the end of the season, which meant that every single set back was going to be magnified. The legacy was going to be close but no cigar.

Except, what if somebody came back? And what if that somebody happens to be the most important of the trio positionally? Then the story of the 2015-16 team isn't quite over, is it?

Now, the 2016-17 Bears are much more of an extension of the 2015-16 Bears. Will Jabari Bird get a chance to cap a painfully unlucky Cal career with a senior season unmarred by horribly timed injuries? Can Jordan Mathews cement his legacy as the second-best shooter in Cal history? Can Sam Singer step out from Ty's shadow and make Bill Walton look like a genius? Can Grant Mullins (and potential grad transfer TBA) add a few key extra ingredients to the stew? Can Kam and King cut down on the fouling to combine with Ivan for the most dominant interior defense Cal will likely ever see?

And looming above it all--can the local recruit who revived Cal basketball lead his team to a higher level?

Answers, in order: No/Oh God why, no, no, kinda, yes . . . and, most importantly, no. Crushingly, no.

Why irresolution? Because so many questions went unanswered.

  • How far might Cal have advanced in the 2016 tournament if Jabari and Ty were healthy?
  • Would Cal have beaten SDSU and/or Seton Hall and/or Virginia if Ivan, Jabari, and Kam stayed healthy?
  • What would this team have achieved with Jordan Mathews on the roster?
  • Could the Bears have beaten Oregon with Jabari available?

These are the act-of-God, nobody is at fault (JMat transfer aside) questions. You can also add the following huge, gigantic, gnawing question:

  • Why couldn’t Cal’s coaches cobble together a better offensive attack? What could this team have achieved if you gave it a mediocre power 5 offense?

I’m not going to try to answer the questions above. Most of them don’t have answers. They’re just the typical questions fans are left with after a failed season. The type of questions we are stuck asking each other when we’re in the mood to torture each other because seasons that are unqualified successes are so rare* for the institution we root for.

Most of all, we’ll think back to individual players.

Ivan Rabb is one of the 5 most talented recruits to ever commit to playing Cal basketball. He will almost certainly leave Berkeley without an NCAA tournament win. His freshman season was an unreserved individual success as he consistently flashed talent and production on both ends of the court. His sophomore season was marred by early season injuries and an ultimately unsuccessful transition from secondary target to primary target.

Jabari Bird never played a minute of NCAA tournament basketball. Every single season of his Cal career was marred by injuries. In all, he missed 21 games and played just one minute in his last, but it’s the timing rather than the volume that hurts so badly. His player development was stalled as a freshman and sophomore, then his deserved rewards were stolen as a junior and senior.

I will miss Sam Singer, Grant Mullins, Stephen Domingo, and Roger Moute a Bidias. I’m sad that their careers didn’t end in the NCAA tournament. But their careers arcs will never have the same tinge of unrealized possibilities and cruel acts of fate as Ivan and Jabari.

*I list 2010 as an unqualified success, and for Cal’s program it’s true. But I still torture myself about what that team could have done with an extra win or two and a better tournament draw.

Does Cal WBB actually have a chance of hearing their names called on Monday?

Currently, the Bears are listed as the very first team out on ESPN’s bracketology. They are listed as a 12 seed in the College Sports Madness bracket (veracity: unknown). Suffice to say that it’s actually possible that a team that finished 6-12 in their own conference might still be dancing in March.

This is, of course, a direct result of the Pac-12 being historically strong this season. The Pac-12 is the RPI #1 conference in the country, with four teams in the top 10. Cal also happens to have wins over RPI teams ranked 9th, 20th, and 33rd, which isn’t something many WBB bubble teams can say. Honestly, when I compare Cal’s resume to that of Auburn or Virginia, I can see why the committee might have a hard time picking between them.

I’m of two minds. By objective measures, Cal is probably good enough to deserve an at-large spot and certainly one of the 64 best teams in the country. But it’s hard to see a team that went 6-12 in any conference (even the best conference!) as having a legitimate claim to play for a national title.

Regardless, we’ll find out our answer at 4:00 today on ESPN’s selection show. Should the Bears be given an 11 or 12 seed, there’s no doubt that they have the type of talent to knock off a 4 or 5 seed - hell, they’ve won two games against teams in that ballpark this year already. For a team still building towards something greater, a taste of March would be much preferable to getting lost in the wilderness of the WNIT. Here’s to crossed fingers!