The California basketball team is going dancing; just not on the dance floor where the Bears had wanted to go.
Cal (19-13), said head coach Mike Montgomery, was about one win away – either the Utah loss at home, or the loss to Colorado in the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas – from getting into the NCAA Tournament, but instead, the Bears will host WAC regular season champions Utah Valley (20-11) on Wednesday night at Haas Pavilion at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN3.
"I think it was that close," Montgomery said of the difference between a No. 2 seed in the NIT or a berth in the Big Dance. "At the end of the day, in retrospect, you felt like you really put yourself in a tough spot. We've got nobody to blame but ourselves. There were so many opportunities to make it a no-brainer, and we just weren't able to do that."
The ticket to the NIT comes as little surprise to anyone in the program, as the team itself was not assembled to watch either the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, or the NIT Selection Show on ESPNU.
"They weren't here," Montgomery said from Haas Pavilion. "We didn't hang around all afternoon just to be disappointed. We had a pretty good inkling, and we told them that we'd let them know what was going on. The kids really weren't interested in going through the emotional aspect of the whole tournament bracketing thing. We had a pretty good idea going into the thing that we might not be selected. We didn't hang out until 6:00 to see it. We texted them, we'll get together tomorrow and start sorting it out."
Should Cal get past the Wolverines, they have a second-round Maui Invitational rematch with Arkansas on tap. The Bears lost to the Razorbacks – who face No. 6-seeded Indiana State – 85-77 in Maui on Nov. 25.
First, though, the Bears must contend with Utah Valley, coached by Dick Hunsaker. The Wolverines lost in the semifinals of the WAC tournament against Idaho, and at one point early in the season lost five straight to Oklahoma State, Oregon, Pepperdine, Tennessee Tech and South Dakota, before tearing off eight straight conference wins.
"I've known Dick for a long, long time," Montgomery said. "He was a guard at Weber State when I was coaching at Montana, so I've known Dick for a long time, and as a coach at Utah. He's a feisty guy, his teams will be very well prepared, very organized, they'll run a lot of stuff. One of their better players is his son, Holton Hunsaker. I would expect that that team will be very well prepared, well organized and their center and their guard are the two main cogs that they have. We're gathering information as we speak."
Holton Hunsacker was announced as a First-Team All-WAC, along with senior guard Ben Aird, who earned the honor for the fourth time in his career, while junior Mitch Bruneel was named to the all-defensive team and freshman Zach Nelson received all-newcomer team honors.
"Our strength has not necessarily been playing hard in every game, so we're going to have to make sure we come out and play hard," Montgomery said. "Once you get over the disappointment of not being in the NCAA field, and you start playing games, it becomes pretty much fun. I think you start to forget about that. If you can win – and that's a big ‘if' – there are going to be a lot of people out early in the NCAA, and you might be still playing. I've had the experience of winning it, and going to the Garden is a lot of fun, but the concern immediately is that first game, and the mental health of our guys, where we are."
As for how well Cal will prepare, the team was emotionally deflated after the loss to the Buffaloes, after having just beat them five days before in overtime in Berkeley, and getting them back up and going for an NIT game where the opponent is excited to be there could be a tall order, especially since the Wolverines are in their first year in the WAC, and only recently moved to Division I in 2009 after a seven-year transition.
"You can tell stories about experiences that you've had, but really our concern right now is to try and play better basketball than we have, trying to prepare for Utah Valley," Montgomery said. "They're going to come in here with a lot of pride, and they're going to come in here with a lot of incentive. That's a school that has not had a lot of tradition of playing in tournaments. They're probably pretty excited. I've had the experience of playing teams that didn't really want to be in the NIT before, and that's a death knell, if you don't want to be there."
Montgomery cited the tournament field as a reason for the Bears to get up for Wednesday night's game.
"West Virginia and Georgetown, Florida State, I mean the list of names – Georgia, SMU – there are a lot of teams in there that are pretty big schools," Montgomery said. "But so you're obviously disappointed, practically speaking. You would have had to know that you didn't put yourself in the best position going into this thing, but you look at the thing – St. John's, Illinois, Clemson – there are a lot of people – Arkansas, who we played – Missouri … If you look at the field, and the schools that are in this think, with really good records, and many of them better records than ours, I don't think that you can do anything but be excited about it and be ready to play and try and prepare the next season to do a better job."
Bears Had Inkling They'd Be NIT-Bound
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