Cal is one of the top teams in the Pac-12, featuring an experienced lineup and a 10-2 record heading into its showdown this week with a ranked UNLV team. For the Bears, it's a huge game with postseason implications because they'll need a win to improve their NCAA tournament résumé.
As life goes in the Pac-12, teams that fall short of winning the conference tournament and capturing an automatic bid into the NCAAs could find it a struggle to make cases for at-large bids based upon some poor nonconference results.
Just ask Cal coach Mike Montgomery.
"It's just put a lot of pressure on I think everybody in the league because when everybody was winning and everybody was ranked, you're saying, 'Man, we could finish in fifth and get in and that's great,'" he said Tuesday. "It's not that way right now. We've already made our bed, and now teams are going to have to finish up very strong to have a chance I think. Obviously the conference tournament winner goes, but after that, I think all bets are off."
The Pac-12 isn't necessarily a one-bid conference, as the regular-season champion has traditionally found its way into the tournament along with the conference tournament champ. Cal should know that as much as any team because the Bears were given at at-large bid in 2010 after making it to the Pac-10 tournament title game and losing. They went on to defeat Louisville in the NCAAs.
But what if the regular-season champ wins the Pac-12 tournament? Things could get interesting with preseason favorite UCLA suffering embarrassing losses, Washington also falling to .500 and Arizona starting slow with four losses of its own. Stanford has looked good with its lone loss to Syracuse, and the Cardinal face another test at home against Butler this week. Oregon State has gotten off to a good start, but still needs to prove it can hang tough through the conference schedule.
"Every time you start to identify a team, it seems like they stumble, so then you're not really sure," Montgomery said. "I think everybody is capable. I don't think there is anybody that is head-and-shoulders better than anybody else. I think there are six teams probably that have a legitimate chance to compete for the top 1-2-3 spots over 18 games. I think everybody probably feels vulnerable that they could lose to anybody else. Obviously with some of the games that the league has lost, it's going to put a lot of pressure to finish up toward the top because that's what you're going to have to do I think to have a chance to play in the tournament."