Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Tonight’s Lede. Preparing For A Packed Weekend. Tuesday night and Wednesday night stole most of this week’s college hoops goodness. They brought us the Kansas-Oklahoma State double-overtime nailbiter, Indiana’s show-me victory in East Lansing and an expected and enthralling Mountain West showdown at UNLV. Thursday night didn’t feature as diverse a selection of intriguing games or storylines, but one bad night of hoops – taken alongside a loaded weekend slate, which includes the last-ever BracketBusters event – is probably not going to fly over the high-level hardwood drama that played out over the past two nights. If anything, a one-night dose of relative mediocrity (at least schedule-wise) will whet your appetite for the weekend ahead.
Your Watercooler Moment. Justin Cobbs Lifts Cal.
The national media spotlight directed at Cal coach Mike Montgomery following a controversial second-half sideline encounter with star guard Allen Crabbe dwarfed the positive aspect of the Golden Bears’ eight-point win over USC. Cal was winning, and winning against solid Pac-12 competition (USC regained its competitive edge since getting ride of Kevin O’Neill; they are unequivocally a nuisance to play). Their three-game winning streak, which began with an eye-opening eight-point victory at Arizona, was extended Thursday night by a gutsy two-point win at Oregon, who had only lost once beforehand at Matthew Knight Arena. The Ducks were without freshman point guard Dominic Artis, and Cal’s superior guard play only magnified Oregon’s shaky backcourt. But for as much as Artis’ absence may or may not have altered Oregon’s backcourt functionality, you can’t disabuse the fact that Cal picked up another huge win in a late-season surge full of them. This team’s recent rise has been a steady climb into the thick of Pac 12 contention; as of Thursday night, the Bears sit just one game back of Arizona and Oregon (and 0.5 games back of UCLA), with a manageable closing schedule that should allow the Bears to close the gap should the Duke or Wildcats slip the rest of the way. Justin Cobbs’ last-second heroics are just the latest evidence; right now, Cal is the best thing the Pac-12 has to offer, full stop. The only question is, why didn’t we see this the first, I don’t know, three months of the season?
Also Worth Chatting About. This Could Get Ugly For Cincinnati.
Let me start by saying this: I don’t envision any realistic scenario where Cincinnati misses the NCAA Tournament. Entering Thursday night’s game at UConn the Bearcats owned a top-40 SOS and RPI figure, nonconference wins over Oregon and Iowa State and commendable league triumphs against Marquette and at Pittsburgh. There are bubble teams that would give anything for that collection of wins and computer power. The Bearcats remain in decent bubble shape, but Thursday night’s overtime loss in Storrs brought to the surface a potentially grim reality for Mick Cronin’s team. Dating back to a February 6 loss at Providence, the Bearcats have now dropped four of their last five, the lone win coming against Villanova. Looking back and rattling off the factors (individual and schedule related) behind the losing skid is simple. It’s what most optimistic fans would do after watching their once-formidable Big East favorite endure the toughest portion of its conference schedule. Here’s where that logic falls flat. If you look at Cincinnati’s remaining games, the only one that you can honestly qualify as anything remotely resembling “easy” is the season-finale against South Florida. In the meantime, Cincy has to play at Notre Dame, a revenge game with UConn and at Louisville. Best case scenario: Cincinnati splits the final four, carries a totally respectable .500 Big East record into the league Tournament, and reboots for a postseason push. The Bearcats have already damaged their seeding prospects beyond what anyone could have reasonably imagined. Botching this final stretch could really diminish their stature in seeding and locational committee discussions.