Night Line: Cal Pushes Distractions Aside to Become Unlikely Pac-12 Title ContendersPosted by BHayes on February 21st, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
If you are a college basketball fan and don’t reside under a rock, you know all about Mike Montgomery and Allen Crabbe’s testy exchange on Sunday. An unfortunate incident worthy of at least most of the debate and discussion that followed, but it’s officially time to move on, folks. Don’t despair if you still want to talk Cal basketball, however, as the Golden Bears are providing plenty of reasons on the court to keep the buzz going. A 48-46 win at Oregon tonight now has them winners of four in a row and six out of seven, with wins over Arizona, UCLA, and now a season sweep of Oregon included in the surge. For those keeping track at home, that’s a win over each of the top three teams in the Pac-12 standings, with a respectable loss at Arizona State standing as the only February blemish. Winning hasn’t always been pretty or easy for the Bears, but they are suddenly as likely a candidate as any to steal the Pac-12 regular season title. Yes, you read that right – California, once 3-4 in league play, could wind up as your Pac-12 champs.
Give credit to the collective resourcefulness of the Bears, the coaching of Montgomery, and the proficiency of Crabbe (his Pac-12 POY stock soaring right now), but the reason the recent push has the Bears sitting with realistic championship dreams has far more to do with every other team in the conference. After spending the 2011-12 season facing constant derision (and deservedly so), the Pac-12 conference has bounced back in a big way this year. Recent bracket projections have included as many as six conference teams in the NCAA Tournament field, a development that would be a veritable windfall for a league that sent just one at-large team to the Dance a year ago.
This newfound depth has left the Pac-12 standings page a cluttered mess, and no team has been able to separate themselves from the pack. At various times, a number of teams have looked capable of emerging from the fray: Arizona looked head and shoulders above the rest of the league entering conference play, Oregon seized firm control of the race early, and all the while UCLA has appeared to be the most talented Pac-12 outfit, but all three of those teams currently sit with four losses apiece. Cal is just a game back in the loss column at 9-5, owns tiebreakers over all three of the aforementioned leaders, and has a very manageable closing schedule. The Bears will be favored in all four of their remaining games, with home match-ups against Colorado and Stanford looming as the toughest battles. On paper it is the easiest schedule of the four teams, as Arizona and UCLA still have, among other challenges, a date with each other on March 2 at Pauley Pavilion, while struggling Oregon will face a major road-block at Colorado.
Cal does need a little help from those top three teams, and would almost certainly have to win out themselves, but for the Bears to have a real chance at claiming the regular season crown this late in the season is amazing. Yes, it is proof of a deep and chaotic Pac-12, but it’s also pretty solid evidence of what has become a consistent, stable California program (don’t forget that they were the only at-large representative from the Pac-12 last season). Believe what you will about Pushgate, but while a nation of fans were quarreling over right and wrong, Mike Montgomery and Allen Crabbe made up, the Bears kept their heads down, and a chance at an unlikely Pac-12 title has suddenly appeared in Berkeley.