By Sam McPherson
The California men's basketball team just lost to the University of Arizona by 39 points last week to close out its regular-season schedule, but the Golden Bears may get another shot at the best team in the Pac-12 Conference later this week if they win their opening game in the league tournament today in Las Vegas.
Cal takes on Washington State at noon, and despite losing to the Cougars at home back on January 4 by three points, the Bears did beat Wazzou by nine points back in Pullman, WA later in January. Cal is the No. 8 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, while WSU is the No. 9 seed. The winner of the game gets to take on top-seeded Arizona on Thursday at noon, and although it's a tall order for the Bears to beat the Wildcats, it still represents a huge opportunity for Cal.
The Bears are just 17-14 this year, probably headed to the National Invitation Tournament. But they would have nothing to lose playing against Arizona—a team with everything to lose. Strangely, the Wildcats haven't won the conference tournament championship since 2002, but this year's team—currently ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press poll and in line for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to Bracket Matrix—is very capable of ending that drought.
California could have something to say about that, if it beats Washington State and then plays the game of its players' lives against Arizona. Yes, that's probably wishful thinking, but that's why they play the games—and March Madness isn't just a phrase used to define the 68-team tourney the NCAA sanctions to determine its champ every year. Conference tournaments are the perfect landscapes for major upsets, because of familiarity.
However, the Bears do have to beat the Cougars first, so let's examine that matchup. Washington State is 13-17 this year, although the team posted the same 7-11 conference record that Cal did—and the teams split their two games this season. The Cougars also beat both Oregon and Stanford this year, something the Bears couldn't do. So Wazzou is capable of beating almost anyone.
California has an RPI mark of 101 currently, while Washington State (145) is a bit lower in the Ratings Percentage Index. Just using Adjusted Scoring Margin as a predictor, the Bears should be four-point favorites on a neutral court—and that's exactly what both teams will get in Las Vegas. The Cougars have an offensive edge, while Cal has a huge defensive edge. Washington State is 4-8 in its last 12 games, while Bears split their last dozen games.
On paper, Cal should win, but in basketball, those statistical edges depend on players making shots at the same rate they've been making them all season—and you never know when a team could go cold. But the Bears' defensive edge is the more reliable measurement here, so look for Cal to beat Washington State and get its third shot at Arizona on Thursday.
The Wildcats beat the Bears twice this year, by an average of 31 points each time. On paper, that game shouldn't be close at all. But California still wants the chance to pull off the upset of the season, and the kids from Berkeley should get that shot.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A's. His work can be found on Examiner.com.
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