Loss Sets Up Brighter Days For Bears

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LOS ANGELES - Five days ago, it appeared that the Bears could make the run that nobody thought they could. They had dominated Stanford so thoroughly and so convincingly that suddenly, the Bears were being mentioned as one of those dark horse candidates to make a run at the Pac-10 Tournament Crown.

But Thursday finally arrived and the Bears lost to a better, more tournament-ready USC team. And given the circumstances that surrounded Cal this season and that are currently surrounding the Pac-10, Thursday's loss wasn't all that bad of an exit.

Maybe it was because Jorge Gutierrez played probably his least engaged game of the season. Maybe it was because Cal often looked helpless in the face of USC's trademark defense or that Cal had only six players play more than four minutes.

But I think it is because nobody realized that the Pac-10 was this good. Just ask Mike Montgomery what he thinks about the prognosticators of the college basketball world.

"I was encouraged that the talking heads who know nothing started to talk about four teams from the Pac-10," Montgomery said. "I was encouraged that the league started to gain some prestige the last couple of days."

That's not to say that the Bears could not have won on Thursday. After all, they knocked off the Trojans in Los Angeles and narrowly lost to them in Berkeley without Allen Crabbe.

But Thursday was all about circumstances, and while any Pac-10 team can win the tournament for the conference's automatic berth, USC's prospects for an at-large bid far outweighed Cal's pipe dream of a tournament victory.

If the Trojans don't win the tournament, then they will anxiously await the bracket's unveiling on Sunday afternoon to see if the tournament committee considers them one of the top 68 teams in the country.

When asked about what he thinks about his team's matchup with USC today, Arizona coach Sean Miller made his thoughts perfectly clear about USC's caliber.

"To me it's that USC is a very good team. I look at them as one of the top 35 teams in the country," Miller said. "I firmly expect them to be in the (NCAA) Tournament."

As for the Bears, it's an acceptable loss that should give them a boost for postseason play this year and motivation for what will be a brutal conference next year.

For now, it will likely be an NIT berth for the Bears while four, perhaps as many as five Pac-10 teams go dancing. Cal learned on Thursday the strides that it needs to make and the challenges that it will face before it is a legitimate date to the dance.

Montgomery realizes this much, and even though his team will not return to the NCAA Tournament this season, he let them know about not merely the improvements, but the potential that this squad possesses.

"I really believe that we had one hell of a year given the circumstances that we dealt with," Montgomery said. "They have grown tremendously as a group and as a team and I want them to now start thinking about where they want to be next year."


Look forward to next season with Gabriel at [email protected]

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