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Golden days: History of Cal basketball in March Madness

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MARCH 16, 2023

To the surprise of no one, Cal basketball will not be in March Madness tournament brackets. On top of that, the National Invitation Tournament, the bracket for the next 64 teams out of the NCAA tournament, did not include the blue and gold. Cal fans are sure to be missing their Bears in the spotlight for the next few weeks. Until the next time the Bears are invited to the Big Dance, distant memories of Cal in the postseason are all that remain.

Since its inception in 1939, the NCAA Tournament has been the home for impossible comebacks, Cinderella stories and the coveted national championship. Cal’s introduction to the tournament was in 1946, when the first round was also the Elite Eight.

The men’s team was led by Nibs Price, who also served as the Bears’ head football coach in the 1920s. Price’s Bears advanced to the Final Four before being knocked out by Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) and finished fourth after dropping the third place game to Ohio State.

Price would go on to win more than 400 games as the men’s head coach over a 30-year career, but he retired without another tournament appearance.

The women’s team had its first taste of the tournament in 1990, just 16 years after it was formed. Playing Long Beach State in the first round, the Bears were shown a first-round exit. Still, this would be the first in a long line of tournament appearances for Cal.

The blue and gold would go on a dry spell after an exit in the 1993 tournament, returning to the big stage in 2006 for four straight trips to the Dance.

But it wasn’t until the Lindsay Gottlieb era began in Berkeley that the Bears were able to go on their most impressive run yet. Starting with a tournament appearance in 2012, the women’s team made each tournament in the 2010s, with the exception of the 2016 season.

This historic run had another historic moment of its own: 2013. Led by Gottlieb, the Bears navigated their region of the bracket all the way to the Final Four. In their Elite Eight game against Georgia, the Bears came back from 10 points down to win in overtime, 65-62. The “Heart Attack Pack” took down the Bulldogs off of a huge performance from Layshia Clarendon, who scored 17 in the second half and overtime.Though the magic carpet ride came to an end against Louisville in the Final Four, this certainly marks the high point for the modern era of Cal basketball.

The apex of Cal basketball history, though, came in 1959. Nearly a decade after the departure of the legendary Price, the Bears finally broke through. This time the coach was Pete Newell. His Bears had been in the tournament in the 1957 and 1958 seasons only to be bumped in the Elite Eight. This time around, they were able to get over the hump by beating Cincinnati in the Final Four and finishing the job in the title game against West Virginia, 71-70.

Newell’s Bears made another final appearance in 1960. But unlike the year before, Ohio State did what its in-state neighbors could not and beat the Bears 75-55. It would be 30 years before the men’s team returned to the madness, making a second-round exit in 1990.

The 1959 championship remains the only title in Cal basketball’s storied history. Like most good things in Cal Athletics history, it came well before many of us were born.

It may still be a while before we can see the Bears cut down the nets with another championship in tow. Until then, black-and-white footage will have to do.

Contact Ryan Sheehan at 


MARCH 16, 2023