Prior to the Cal men’s basketball team’s game last week against Oregon State, our local pundits labeled it a “must-win” for Cal to make the NCAA tournament. Not only did the Bears beat the Beavers, they pulled off a thrilling upset of then-No. 10 Oregon two days later.
But Crabbe and Co. should hold off putting on their dancing shoes just yet. While the two victories certainly won’t keep Cal from competing in the tournament, so doubtful was Cal’s participation a week ago that they don’t come anywhere close to ensuring it — even the win over a top-10 team.
Neither Sports Illustrated nor ESPN have included Cal in their bracket projections, including the play-in games. ESPN didn’t even include the Bears in its bubble watch column. SI did, but given the grudging tone — “OK, fine. We’ll add the Golden Bears.” — you wonder if Mike Montgomery hadn’t broken into SI’s offices and waved bamboo shoots in the author’s direction.
Cal’s RPI seems to put it right on the cusp. The NCAA’s Feb. 4 RPI rankings put the Bears at No. 70, the eighth-highest ranked team in the Pac-12. It sits just behind a glut of their conference foes: Arizona St. (No. 63), Stanford (No. 67), and Washington (No. 69). Cal already lost to Washington but games remain against both Arizona St. and Stanford (to which Cal also lost earlier in the season). If Cal wins these games, plus the rest of its conference slate against lower-ranked teams, it might stand a chance of leapfrogging two or maybe all of that group.
Even if Cal does that, it would still stand as the fifth or sixth ranked team in the conference. Given the Pac-12’s middling status this year, that might not be enough. The Pac-12 is currently the sixth-ranked conference in the country by RPI; each of the last three years, the conference ranked sixth by RPI (The ACC last year, the SEC for the 2010-11 season, and the Big Ten for the 2009-10 season) has earned five NCAA tournament bids. To be assured one of those slots, realistically Cal needs to also upset two or three of its higher-ranked conference opponents (Arizona away, UCLA at home, Oregon away, and Colorado at home).
Other advanced metrics systems confirm Cal’s mediocre standing compared to its Pac-12 brethren. By Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System, Cal is the sixth-best team in the league. Same by Pomeroy’s pythagorean rankings. This fact, combined with the overwhelmingly negative eye-test assessments Cal is receiving from the major bracket watch pundits, definitely leaves Cal looking in from the outside at the NCAA tournament.
Compounding this is the Bear’s dismal out-of-conference performance. Cal played four marquee non-conference games — Wisconsin (RPI No. 41) away, UNLV (No. 19) at home, Creighton (No. 28) at home, and Harvard (No. 87) at home — and lost them all. Of those losses, the Harvard one hurts Cal the most. Not only will Harvard’s poor rankings drag the Bears down further, the defeat also came against a team that has become an East Coast media darling over the last few years, which will increase the loss’ weight in the NCAA selection committee’s mind. Overall, the perception that the Bears can’t win outside the relatively weak Pac-12 will greatly hurt Cal’s chances.
It all adds up to whether Cal can earn enough wins down the stretch to counterbalance its poor performance so far this season. Of the nine left, Cal will need to take at least seven, if not eight, of them. That includes victories over at least two of Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, and Colorado. Easier said than done.