Which of the first round matchups do you think will be the closest and why?
Michael Brust: Washington and Arizona. The Huskies are on a roll as of late, winning three out of their last four and beating both Arizona teams on a two-game road trip in the Copper State. If it wasn’t for the loss of Quade Green to academic ineligibility, Washington would be considered one of the best teams in the conference. The Wildcats and the Huskies have almost identical splits in the important statistics, shooting 44.8 and 44.3% from the field while allowing opponents to shoot 39.4 and 38.1, respectively. Both of their matchups this season were decided by less than seven points, so expect this game to go down to the wire.
Trilok Reddy: Oregon State and Utah. The two teams split the regular season series with the home team winning both times. Oregon State is heading into the game after sweeping the Bay Area schools and senior Tres Tinkle has been on fire. Utah’s Timmy Allen hasn’t been slacking either and it will be great to see a battle of the forwards.
Jack Whaley: I think Cal and Stanford will have the closest game in round one and my prediction is that the final score is decided by less than five points. The teams split the series in conference play this year, both sides taking a victory at home, but the last meeting between the two sides is what makes me think this will be a close one. Decided by just two points, the Bears beat the Cardinal in what was a back-and-forth competition for all 40 minutes. The rivalry is a heated one, and will surely make for some first round drama.
What player from Cal needs to step up and complement Matt Bradley in order to secure an upset?
MB: Paris Austin and Andre Kelly. Austin has been the spark plug for Cal offensively at times when they’ve stagnated. His ability to get into the paint and draw fouls is one of the Bears’ most consistent scoring methods, and if he can hit contested layups, expect Cal to get a 12-18 point boost from him. Kelly on the other hand, needs to be a monster on the boards and provide second chance scoring opportunities for an offense that ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in points per game and second to last in shooting percentage. The Bears need more than just their standard offense and Kelly’s ability to provide extra offense is vital if the blue and gold want to walk away from Vegas with their first win in years.
TR: Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich. The forwards have had huge impacts on Cal’s game when they get going. Anticevich can be a great shooter and Kelly can provide a much needed presence under the basket. Stretching the floor beyond the guards is a must for Cal.
JW: I’m putting the pressure on the ball-handers. Guards Paris Austin and Joel Brown have to step up and keep some of the defensive focus off of Bradley. Austin is averaging 27.7 minutes per game and Brown is just behind him at 18.9, but Brown is averaging just 2.5 points per game. While Austin’s 9.1 points per game is second on the team, he’ll need to see himself in double figures to help Cal pull off an upset. If Austin and Brown both step up and can create problems for Stanford’s defense, it can help to free up some looks for Bradley and Kareem South on the wings and get some open threes. Both Austin and Brown love to drive to the paint, so some aggressive offense from that duo could earn Cal some open looks and some earned free throws.
What teams must win to make the NCAA tournament?
MB: UCLA. The Bruins have shocked the world and the conference by becoming one of the Pac-12’s best teams, but despite their impressive play, they still sit firmly on the bubble. A win in the tournament, or even a deep run, could give them the edge they need to sneak into the tournament. In my opinion, UCLA deserves an appearance, but whether their bubble will pop prematurely will depend on their performance at the conference tournament.
TR: After a disappointing loss to USC to finish the season, UCLA is looking like they must win a game or two to make the NCAA tournament. Colorado, Arizona State and Stanford are also looking like they need a win or two to get over the bubble. Only No. 13 Oregon, USC and Arizona look like they have a good chance to receive an at-large bid without a significant tournament run.
JW: The winner of the Pac-12 tournament gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament so winning the Pac-12 tournament will benefit everyone. Oregon, Arizona, Colorado and Arizona State are all safe in my opinion and don’t need to rely on an automatic bid. No other team is consistently projected to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, so that means for all of the other eight teams, the tournament is a must-win.
The Pac-12 has been unpredictable this season to say the least. This could be a wild tournament, but who do you think will end up as conference champ?
MB: Oregon. Yes, it’s the favorite, yes the Ducks are one of the best teams in the country, and it may not be the flashiest pick — but it’s the right one. Payton Pritchard isn’t just the best player in the conference, but one of the best players in college basketball, period. With his ability to deliver when the Ducks need a clutch bucket — coupled with a fantastic supporting cast in Chris Duarte and Will Richardson — Oregon deserves to be the favorite, and will be sitting pretty come Saturday night.
TR: Oregon has been the most consistent team in the Pac-12 and that gives them the best shot at the title. Payton Pritchard is also one of the best players in the country and always delivers when his team needs him. No other team is as complete as the Ducks, and the first seed certainly won’t hurt.
JW: To change things up a bit, I’m going to take an underdog for fun here and say that USC wins the tournament and gets itself a bid to March Madness. Oregon is the popular and obvious choice for most, but the Trojans took them to overtime in the two sides’ matchup this season and have fared well against the Pac-12 elites, even in their losses. USC is not a lock for the NCAA tournament, unlike the other top four seeds, so a win may be a bit more important to this team. The Trojans also have a first-round bye and they’re on a three-game winning streak to end the season. For those reasons, I can see them playing with a little extra spark and winning it all.
Realistically, how far can Cal go?
MB: One round, maybe. But that’s a big maybe. The Bears completely forget how to play basketball when they’re on the road, as they’ve managed only one victory away from Haas Pavilion this season. Their average margin of loss is 15.7 points per game in neutral or opposing territory, meaning that Cal not only struggles on the road, but falls apart completely. This isn’t the year for a deep run from the blue and gold.
TR: The first round against Stanford is definitely winnable for the Bears, but beyond that would take a miracle. Facing a rested UCLA team in the second round that has been on a tear through the conference might be too much for any team, let alone a team that struggles away from home and only has one main scoring threat.
JW: Realistically, there’s a chance that Cal beats Stanford in the first round, but I’m not counting on it. I think the Bears see themselves out of the tournament after the first day. Cal has struggled outside of Berkeley all season (1-13) and I don’t see any reason why that trend would halt all of a sudden during the biggest game of the year. I think it’s possible that the Bears can beat the Cardinal, but I’m predicting a first-round exit, second round if they’re lucky.