Cal heads to Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament with more questions than answers

 Grant Mullins and the rest of the Cal shooters will need to catch fire in Vegas to have a chance at an automatic tournament bid. (photo by Steve Dykes)

Grant Mullins and the rest of the Cal shooters will need to catch fire in Vegas to have a chance at an automatic tournament bid. (photo by Steve Dykes)

By Nate Rosenbloom | @hibernature

The 2016-17 season was supposed to be transitional one for the Cal Men’s Basketball team.

Following a disappointing upset defeat in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, conventional wisdom held that freshman stars Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb would both declare for the NBA draft. Their early exits, coupled with the departure of 4-year starter Tyrone Wallace and the graduate transfer of Jordan Matthews to Gonzaga, set the stage for a rebuilding year.

The season outlook changed drastically when Oakland native Rabb surprised everyone and decided to stick around for his sophomore season. Then Coach Cuonzo Martin landed a recruiting windfall when Illinois’ Mr. Basketball, pint-sized point guard Charlie Moore, decommitted from Memphis and decided to come to Berkeley.

All of a sudden, the team had a National Player of the Year Candidate in Rabb to dominate the post, Moore to run the offense, while the talented Jabari Bird had an opportunity to play Robin to Raab’s Batman. There was still hope in Berkeley.

After a 9-2 start to this season, Cal hosted #12 Virginia with a chance to claim a statement win. The Bears ended up losing a close game to the Wahoos, but proved to the nation (and themselves) that they could compete with the big boys.

The schedule makers decided to test that confidence immediately. Following Virginia, the Bears began Pac-12 Conference play and faced four top-25 ranked teams in the first seven conference games.

The results of those seven games are as follows:

  • 4-3 record including an important win at #25 USC

  • Losses to Arizona (barely), UCLA (by 10 but could have been much more if not for a strong second half performance) and Oregon (bad)

Following that tough stretch, Cal fans were still convincing themselves that this team had potential and that they could find themselves dancing come March. The team apparently thought so too as they proceeded to win five in a row including a 2-OT thriller over Utah, complete with a Charlie Moore to Jabari Bird game-winning alley-oop.

Even after a second 5 point loss to Arizona ended the winning streak and was followed by a surprising loss to Stanford on the farm, hope sprung eternal for the Bears with #6 Oregon coming to Berkeley. A win over a top 10 team was exactly what the Cal team’s tournament resume needed. Throughout the first half, it looked like they were on track to claim that signature win, holding the Ducks to just 16 first half points. The second half told a different story, however, as the Ducks clawed all the way back, capped by Dillon Brooks hitting his 2nd game winning 3-pointer of the season.

(Bear fans may want to look away):

That shot may very well have sucked the remaining fight out of the Bears, as they closed the season with ugly losses to Utah and Colorado that dropped them into a tie for 5th in the conference (meaning they do not get a bye in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament). With only a single win over a ranked opponent to their name (USC) and a weak strength of schedule (71st in the nation), the Bears now appear to be on the outside of the tournament looking in.

They’ll need to find their mojo in Vegas, and quick. Winning the Pac-12 Tournament earns an automatic bid to the NCAAs, but winning the tournament may not be required for the Bears to earn an at-large bid. If they make the Final, which would require beating Oregon State and Utah to set up a semi-final match-up with who would likely be Oregon. A win over the Ducks would make the Bears hard to ignore for the selection committee as they would then have a 22-11 record and a signature win against a top-10 team.

Anything less than an appearance in the championship game and Cal is looking at the NIT and a season of missed opportunity. It’s hard to imagine Rabb coming back for a third season considering he is likely to be a top-10 pick in next year’s NBA draft - although a boy can dream about him coming back, right?!?

The other storyline to watch as the season draws to a close is the future of head coach Cuonzo Martin. Martin and Cal agreed to an extension in October 2016 to keep the coach in Berkeley through the 2021 season. It’s uncommon for a coach that just signed an extension to be mentioned as a candidate for other jobs, and yet for Cal fans this makes perfect sense. Just when it felt like the program was headed in the right direction, the rug looks ready to be pulled right out from under them.

In his three years in charge, Martin has proven himself a top-notch recruiter and has given Cal fans nothing but hope about the future of the program. While there is nothing more important to Cal fans than hope, they are also prone to serial cynicism. The cynics out there are currently convincing themselves that the Cal job is a stepping stone for Martin. He is a self-proclaimed “midwest guy” and there are some interesting jobs opening up in that part of the country.

Personally, I would prefer to be paid a million and a half a year to coach and live in the Bay Area over Champaign, Illinois or Bloomington, Indiana. But then again, I’m not a "midwest guy." Cal fans have to be hoping that Martin agrees with me and decides to stick around at least a couple of more years to see the fruits of his labor. If Martin leaves, where does that leave the program? A program in serious need of an identity, and its third coach in four seasons.

As for a prediction: Cal goes on a run, beats Oregon and then loses to UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament final. Cal then makes the tournament as an 11-seed playing in the “First 4” in Dayton, OH. What can I say? I’m an eternal optimist. Survive and advance.