BERKELEY — An upset loss to Utah cost the Cal men’s basketball team a higher seed in March Madness, but the Bears caught a break by snagging a game in their own backyard.
After back-to-back losses, Cal (20-11) landed a No. 12 seed in the East region of the NCAA Tournament. Despite the setback, the team received the good fortune of playing in front of its home crowd in a rematch against fifth-seeded UNLV (25-9) at HP Pavilion in San Jose on Thursday.
“We’re excited about the location,” coach Mike Montgomery said. “It just makes, logistically, everything so much easier.”
The Bears will face a familiar opponent when they meet up with the Runnin’ Rebels at the Shark Tank. UNLV beat Cal 76-75 at Haas Pavilion on Dec. 9 with the help of a last-second hook shot and forward Robert Thurman said the Bears are “stoked” to get another crack at the Mountain West Conference’s No. 3 team.
“We know we can beat these guys,” he said. “They kind of slipped out of our hands here earlier in the year, but that was a completely different team. A team that wasn’t playing together, a team that really didn’t have a way.”
But the Rebels are a revamped squad, too. When the teams met in December, UNLV was missing 6-foot-9 forward Khem Birch and 6-foot-8 forward Mike Moser played only five minutes after suffering a dislocated elbow.
If the Bears are going to advance to play the winner of No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 13 Montana on Saturday, they’ll need to slow down freshman forward Anthony Bennett, who is averaging 16.1 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game.
“They’re a very, very good team,” Montgomery said. “They’re a very explosive, talented group of guys.”
After winning nine of 10 games, the Bears were in a position to win the Pac-12 Conference regular-season title less than two weeks ago. At the time, some pundits were projecting Cal to be as high as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But after a home loss to Stanford and an early exit from the Pac-12 tournament on Thursday, the Bears’ fate was left in the hands of the selection committee.
“No one can assure you. They can say they know you’re in, you’re out — nobody knows,” Montgomery said.
As usual, Montgomery said the Bears’ path to victory is through defense and providing Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe with scoring help on the offensive end.
“You play for five months, you work so hard to earn the right to be in this tournament,” Montgomery said. “And now we’ve just got this opportunity to go out and, hopefully, we can take advantage of it.”