Crunch Time for Cal Bears
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 22, 2006

THE CAL BEARS are tied for first in the Pac-10, but because of their penchant for blowing games they should win easily – and Ben Braun’s weak pre-conference scheduling – it’s all too conceivable that the Bears could miss the NCAA tournament.

Right now, there are five teams in the mix: Cal, UCLA, Stanford, Washington and Arizona. Conceivably, a sixth team could be in there if, say, USC were to get hot and win the conference tournament, getting an automatic bid. Some writers have speculated that the conference will get four teams in the NCAA tournament, but that’s mostly based on history. Considering that the conference is so weak – ranked seventh in the country – the selection committee may pick only three. Don’t forget the east coast bias.

Stanford is the least likely of the top five schools to make the tournament, because its RPI ranking is only 89. I don’t pretend to know all the criteria for the RPI rankings, though strength of schedule is obviously an important one, but those rankings play a very important role in the selections. Arizona and Washington, although behind Stanford in the conference standings, have RPI rankings that are second only to UCLA in the conference. Unless Stanford can upset the Huskies in Washington tomorrow night, the Cardinal is probably looking at the NIT.

But, there’s no guarantee that Cal won’t be there, too. After the loss to Arizona State, Cal’s RPI ranking stands at 65 – and there are 64 teams in the tournament. If Cal does not win either the conference championship or the conference tournament, it’s conceivable Washington and Arizona could be picked, along with UCLA, and Cal could be out in the cold.

The Arizona State loss was a killer, as was the home loss to Oregon State and the loss to Stanford at Maples. The Bears should have won all three. Stanford is the only good team of the three, but it's limited. Trent Johnson has done a very good job of getting the most out of his team, but Stanford doesn’t have the athletic talent to stay with a team like Arizona, as was shown last week. In a way, that highlighted the Cal disappointments. The Bears actually overmatched the Wildcats physically, but they have lost too many games they should have won.

There’s a special challenge in playing an inferior team. Sid Gillman, when he was coaching the San Diego Chargers, told me before a long-ago game against the Raiders that it was easy to prepare a team for big games because players got themselves emotionally ready. He thought a coach earned his money by getting his players ready against weaker opponents.

By that criterion, Braun flunked Saturday. The Bears were obviously flat. They weren’t playing with intensity, which translated into the bad old stagnant offensive patterns and not blocking out on the defensive boards.

In those situations, a coach should change up. Play some reserves who will be eager to get the playing time. Change the pre-game routine. Remind them of their overconfidence before the Oregon State game, and how it cost them, or their letdown against Arizona in Tucson, when they gave up 21 offensive boards.

But, nothing was changed for the Bears, and they went out and laid another egg.

THE OTHER problem for the Bears is the weak pre-conference schedule.

This is all on Braun. He schedules these games to make it easier to get to 20 wins. So, year after year, you see teams like Humboldt State and Long Beach State on the schedule. The “Golden Bear Classsic” this year featured Cal State Northridge, Northeastern California and Northern Colorado. Wow! Braun’s no doubt sorry that The Little Sisters of the Poor don’t field a team.

Virtually the only stiff competition the Bears face before the start of the conference schedule is in the Pete Newell Challenge, and Braun has even ducked out of that a couple of times.

Braun’s theory on pre-conference scheduling is the direct opposite of Cal football coach Jeff Tedford. In his second season, 2003, Tedford campaigned to get his team into the Black Coaches Association game, though it meant playing nationally-ranked Kansas State in Kansas City, only 90 minutes from K-State’s Manhattan campus. At the time, he said, “I want our players to know the level they have to reach.” The Bears lost that game, 42-28, but they went on to a successful season, capping it with a win in the Insight Bowl.

Newell, who ended his career with three straight conference championships, an NCAA championship and a runnerup position the following year, also believed in having a tough pre-conference schedule, because he believed that was the way to get his team prepared, mentally and physically, for the start of the conference schedule.

At Gonzaga, Mark Few has deliberately played the toughest schedule he could outside the conference. He’s done that to build up his team’s RPI rating because his team doesn’t get many points for winning the weak West Coast Conference.

In past seasons, that hasn’t been as much of a concern for the Bears because the Pac-10 conference has been higher rated. Now, though, that weak pre-conference schedule could come back to bite the Bears.

The games this week are critical. Washington State is one of the bottom-feeders but it’s tough to play against Dick Bennett teams because of his tenacious defense and slow-down offense. On Saturday, the Bears have to play the Huskies in Seattle. The pre-season choice to win the conference, the Huskies inexplicably slumped in midseason, but they’re back on their game now.

And, the following week, it will be UCLA and USC at Haas. No easy marks there, either.

PHYSICALLY, THIS is definitely the best group of players Braun has had at Cal, but they’re going to have to prove it in the next two weeks. They can’t afford another stumble. The NIT would be a huge anti-climax this year.

OOPS: In yesterday’s column, I identified Coco Crisp as having played for Detroit last year. He played for Cleveland.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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