Single elimination basketball. The best/worst sporting event of the year.
Let’s start with the good news: Cal women’s basketball has won three in a row and five of their last six. Four of those wins have come by double digits, the last two on the road. One of those wins came over a team that might be hosting first round games in the NCAA tournament. By pretty much any measure the Bears are playing their best basketball of the year.
The bad news is that, in part due to a shooting swoon in the middle of conference play, Cal’s likely post-season paths are likely to be tough. Like, we-could-play-really-high-level-basketball-and-still-lose tough.
It begins on Thursday against 12 seed Washington in first round of the Pac-12 tournament at 2:00 p.m. on the Pac-12 Network (or in Seattle if you’re lucky enough to make it in person). Let’s take things round-by-round and see what stands between the Bears and a Pac-12 Tournament title
First Round vs. 12 seed Washington
Thursday, 2:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
While playing a road game to start things off doesn’t sound ideal, the Bears have already won twice over UW with relative ease. Cal won at home behind a monstrous game from Kristine Anigwe, then won by an even bigger margin on the road when another monster game from Anigwe was supported by more scoring from Cal’s perimeter players.
In two games Washington didn’t give any indication that they could defend Cal’s interior scorers or score on Cal’s defense. There’s no reason not to expect another easy win over a team with a 1-17 Pac-12 record.
Quarterfinals vs. 4 seed UCLA
Friday, 2:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
And it immediately gets tough. The top 4 teams in the conference are all about equally as good, with the difference between 1 seed Oregon and 4 seed UCLA being an overtime in for the Ducks over the Bruins in Eugene.
The Bruins have beaten Cal twice - once by a massive margin in Berkeley, and again in a much more competitive game in L.A. Cal fixed their turnover issues that largely led to the game 1 blowout, but couldn’t hit enough shots to get over the hump in game 2. If the Bears bring the type of shooting they’ve shown lately while maintaining their poise against UCLA’s ball pressure then there’s no reason to think that they can’t play right with the Bruins on Friday afternoon.
It’s also worth noting that UCLA’s last five games have all finished with a winning margin of 8 points or less with three games going to overtime. Narrow home wins over Utah and Colorado don’t exactly suggest the Bruins are firing on all cylinders.
Semifinals vs. 1 seed Oregon
Saturday, 6:00 pm PT, Pac-12 Network
(yes, I am assuming Oregon will beat Utah and/or Colorado)
While the margins in the standings were slim, Oregon can make a strong claim as the best team in the conference. If the Bears make it this far, this game might be as much about avenging their worst loss of the season as it is about improving their March resume.
Cal’s defense was eviscerated by the best offensive player in the conference, and so the question will be what, if anything, Cal can do to slow down Sabrina Ionescu.
Finals vs. presumably Stanford or Oregon State
Sunday, 6:00 pm PT, ESPN2
The Bears have already outplayed the Cardinal over two games a few weeks ago, so there’s no particular reason to fear a 3rd game against Stanford over any other potential opponent. Cal’s loss to Oregon State was more humbling, although that game perhaps represents the nadir (0-11 from 3) of Cal’s bizarre shooting slump. Either way, if the Bears make it this far they’ll be riding an 8-1 stretch of basketball with three wins over high end tournament teams - there won’t be any reason to fear anybody.
What does all this mean for Cal’s NCAA tournament seed?
ESPN’s Charlie Creme currently lists Cal as an 8 seed, and it’s unlikely that Cal’s sweep of two low-RPI teams will change that. So, how far can Cal rise with wins in the Pac-12 tournament?
Right now, the biggest pro on Cal’s resume is a 16-0 record vs. teams with an RPI of 76 or higher. And the biggest con on Cal’s resume is a 3-9 record vs. teams with an RPI 56 or higher. Presuming that Cal beats Washington, each extra game gives the Bears a chance to improve the biggest gap in their resume - top 25/50 RPI wins.
In our dream land where Cal sweeps through Seattle with 4 wins, the Bears would up their RPI top 50 record to something in the ballpark of 6-7*, without any bad losses. Meanwhile, the teams identified as 4 seeds in the selection committee’s ‘bracket reveal’ have RPI top 50 resumes as follows:
Ohio State: 8-6
Now, all of those teams will have the same chance Cal has to improve their own resumes. But I think it’s fair to say that Cal has a shot to put themselves onto the edges of the conversation to earn a top 4 seed and host first round games. To keep things simple, here’s my guess at Cal’s tournament seed based on their Pac-12 tournament performance:
1-1: 8 seed
2-1: 7 seed
3-1: 6 seed
4-0: 5 seed
It’s unusual for a conference tournament to have so much potential impact on a resume, but it’s a reflection of Cal’s lopsided resume and the top-heavy Pac-12 giving Cal a chance to balance things out if they can put together one epic weekend.
The terror and thrill of single elimination basketball begins in 3 days. Buckle up and hold on.
*ASU is currently just outside of the RPI top 50, and would probably need to upset Oregon State to have a chance of climbing back into the top 50. In other news, the RPI and how the NCAA uses it is really, really dumb.