If things aren’t going your way in a video game, you can put the controller down. There’s always the option to power off your console. Nobody is bound to complete a game they start. You can simply acknowledge the fact that you’re not going to win, and move on with your day.
Sports don’t work like that. The Bears do not have much to play for, but there is no quit button in basketball. In NBA 2K, anyone in this spot would probably simulate the remainder of the season. Cal is 3-22 and lost its last nine games. But the Bears will play it out — starting with two games in the City of Angels. The Bears will face USC on Thursday and then sit in LA traffic to get to Westwood for a faceoff with UCLA on Saturday.
However, the real world offers at least one advantage over video games: They are not solitary. Cal has avid fans who will be tuning in for both of these contests, knowing the chances of victory are slim. They have 16 players and four coaches who feel every one of these losses.
You play for championships, but teams out of contention have to find new motivations. That usually manifests in playing for people — players, fans and staff. Head coach Mark Fox was well aware of this following a narrow overtime loss to Arizona State last Saturday.
“I feel awful for our fans and our players with such a heartbreaking loss,” Fox said.
USC just left a two-game road trip without a win, falling to Oregon and Oregon State. The Trojans certainly have a bad taste in their mouths, as their record has now dropped to 17-8.
The Trojans will return to downtown LA with a vengeance, taking their frustration out on the Bears. If Cal wants to win, it will need to play to its full defensive capabilities. The Bears have impressed on that end recently, having held Arizona State to 29% from the field in regulation before their overtime loss last Saturday.
UCLA is a whole other story. The fourth-ranked team in the country seems designed to give the Bears trouble. After the loss to ASU, Fox admitted his team’s lack of options in the backcourt.
“You know we don’t have any depth — everyone knows we don’t have depth, so everybody presses us,” Fox said. “And ultimately (it) shows … in the back half of second halves, and tonight it showed in overtime. We wore down a little bit and we just don’t have a lot of depth in the backcourt.”
The Bruins are if “depth in the backcourt” was a team.
They start four excellent guards and have an excellent sixth man in the backcourt in David Singleton. All five of these guards average over 10 points per game, and all of them have a shooting percentage of at least 33.9% from three. Even if Cal manages to keep pace with the Bruins, crunch time will be brutal against a team with the privilege to stagger its guards in different lineups, thus saving its energy.
If Cal can just beat one of the Pac-12 teams in LA, it would give fans enough bragging rights to last through the summer. So while the season is already a net failure, these games still have important stakes.