PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Coming into Maples Pavilion holding a three-game winning streak over rival Stanford was only secondary for a struggling California squad that has been seen limping away from every big game they've had this season. For the Golden Bears, the primary goal was to defeat an opponent in a game that means something -- in this case, for Bay Area bragging rights.
More troubling for Cal, it has yet to face -- and defeat -- a quality opponent, where the word "quality" here stands for "postseason contender."
Winning the Pac-12 is important, but not as important as winning the Pac-12 Conference Tournament -- because winning that week-long event assures an opportunity to compete for the national title in the ‘Big Dance.'
Ah yes, March Madness: The dream of every player, coach and fan is to get to the NCAA Tournament held in March, and defeat all opponents over a three week period in order to snip the nets from their rims, raise their arms in victory and go down in history as one of the great teams of all time. That's where the money is, not to mention the notoriety that goes with it.
Getting to the Big Dance is the reason for playing teams such as Denver, Drake and Pacific early in the schedule to get ready for conference play.
The so-called preseason also provides an opportunity for any title hopeful to show their mettle against the big boys early on. Teams such as No. 23 UNLV, No. 10 Creighton, or Ivy League dominator Harvard gauge a team's ability to make it to the NCAA Tournament and its ability to make noise once it gets there. Those games mean more than bragging rights.
Unfortunately for the Bears, they haven't done so well to date when faced with stiff competition. In every game in which they have faced an opponent who will surely make it to the Promised Land this March, the Bears have struggled mightily in defeat, and in some cases, been embarrassed during the process. In Cal's six losses to quality teams, they have trailed in defeat by an average of 11.7 points per game.
While those defeats include a single-point loss to the Runnin' Rebels, and a five-point loss to the Crimson at Haas Pavilion, they also include a 25-point dismantling against unranked Wisconsin, a 10-point loss to the Bluejays at home, a 14-point loss to No. 25 UCLA, and a 15-point loss to Washington at home. Not once has Cal defeated a team that is expected to make it to the biggest stage of the post season.
Ironically, all six of the Bears' losses this season coming into Saturday's loss to the Cardinal have been to opponents that will likely get an invitation to the big stage in March.
Sure, a team like Pepperdine -- (9-8, 1-3 WCC), who Cal defeated by 17 points at home in their second game of the season -- may get hot during their conference tournament and get the automatic bid for winning it, but the Waves will not be receiving an automatic bid if they don't. At this stage of the season, it's safe to say that unless the Bears win the rest of their regular season games and gets past the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, they won't get that call on Selection Sunday either.
Like its cross-bay rival Stanford, Cal is expected to be a formidable NIT opponent at the end of the season -- and that's like dating the homecoming queen's ugly sister.
Winning on the road is never easy, and even the best Montgomery-led Cal teams have struggled at Maples Pavilion against some of the lesser Cardinal teams, but many of those games weren't nearly as important to the team's season outlook as this game was for these Bears. A loss would drop them farther down the Pac-12 rung and prompt panic to right the ship, while a win would merely hold the status quo -- giving the Bears the title of ‘best' Bay Area team.
That title has gone to Cal since Montgomery took over the program. The Bears began the game 5-3 against the Cardinal during the Montgomery era and have bested their rival in conference record each season since the 2008-09 campaign. It's become an annual right for the Bears to be able to say that they are the top hoops school in the Bay Area, but after dropping another important game -- losing 69-59 on Saturday -- they can no longer lay claim to that title.
It doesn't matter that the Bears were on the road, or that the officiating was downright questionable at best. At the end of the day, a loss is a loss, and at the end of the season -- when they are counting up those losses and comparing them with the wins -- that is all that will be remembered.
Now tied with Stanford in conference, (11-7, 2-3 Pac-12), Cal, (10-7, 2-3 Pac-12), won't be able to have rivalry bragging rights until their next meeting with the Cardinal takes place on March 6, and losing that game will be even more meaningful. A loss to Stanford on their home court would truly concede the Battle of the Bay title for the 2012-13 season regardless of final records.
A season in which Cal had high hopes of hoisting the Pac-12 title and making a serious run in the NCAA Tournament has taken a detour towards a dead end road that leads to a cliff reaching out over the Pacific Ocean. For now, as long as they continue to falter in important games, the only title they'll lay claim to is ‘also ran' in the Pac-12.
COMMENTARY: No Title for Cal This Season
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