Cal gets first Pac-10 basketball title since 1960. But now what?

OK, the ‘Big Game’ is over.  ASU fell a second time this season to Cal, this time in a 62-46 rout at Haas Pavilion.  The Golden Bears locked up at least a share of the Pac-10 men’s basketball crown with the win Saturday – their first title in 50 years.

But what happens now?  The euphoria has faded and it’s time for a reality check.

The Pac-10 title doesn’t entitle the Bears to an invitation to the NCAA tournament.  It just gave them a No. 1 seed in the tourney.  They still have to win the conference tournament to get an automatic bid.  But the conference title would make a pretty strong argument for an at-large bid, should Cal falter in the tournament.

But does it really make any difference who represents the Pac-10 at the Big Dance?  Anything other than a first-round exit would be a surprise to anyone paying attention this season.

So all that sweat going into getting to the Dance may be for naught.  And where does that leave Pac-10 fans?  Last year they had six teams to follow and had a team or two to root for through much of the brackets.

But this year, there’s a good chance that Cal will be the lone representative.  If any team has a chance of advancing past the first round, the Bears would be it.  Their three-guard offense features four starting seniors, the most experienced team the Pac-10 could field.

And their coach, Mike Montgomery, is no stranger to taking a team through the brackets.  During his time at Stanford, before taking the reclamation project at Cal, he won an NCAA championship and then took the Bears back to the Final Four the next year.

The team right behind Cal in the conference is Arizona State (20-9, 10-6).  The Sun Devils are a well-balanced team, but no go-to shooters.  They’ve won 20 games, but they’re winning with defense (allowing 58 points a game), and it’s no secret that they have over-achieved this year; they were picked to finish anywhere from seventh to tenth in the conference this year.

The Devils let Cal go on an 18-2 run in the second half of Saturday’s game to see the Bears run away in a game that was close to that point.  ASU was 3-for-22 from behind the arc.  Their top scorer, Jerren Shipp, had just 14 points.

Not exactly a picture of consistency on offense.  And this was considered a ‘must-win’ game – just like every one they would face in the NCAA tournament.

The Devils are still challenging for a share of the Pac-10 title, but they would have to win both of their home games this week.  And Cal would have to lose to 13-16 Stanford.   A lot of  ‘ifs’ and the biggest is counting on Cal to lose.

But the bottom line is  Cal (20-9, 12-5) has beaten them  twice this year.  And Cal isn’t a particularly strong team – not the kind of squads they would have to deal with in the NCAA tournament.

Montgomery did a good job of scheduling tough non-conference teams, rather than patsies to pad the record.  That is paying off as the season winds down.

But neither Cal or ASU have a lot of quality non-conference wins to support their argument for an at-large bid, should they need it.  The Devils beat San Diego State, but that’s about it.  The Bears knocked off Iowa State, but their resume gets fuzzy after that.

And University of Arizona (14-14, 8-8), although it might be a sentimental favorite because they’re fighting to keep a 26-year string of NCAA tournament appearances intact, is sporting the worst record it’s had going into Mad March since 1984.  And three of the Wildcats’ 14 wins were accomplished within the final seconds of the games, and another pair were won in overtime.  They’re not exactly blowing teams over.

The Wildcats also have a first-year head coach and play with a bunch of kids just out of high school.  The cornerstone of the offense is a freshman, 6’8″ Derrick Williams, who has averaged 15 points and seven rebounds a game.  Oh yeah, the Cats are also one of the worst rebounding teams in the conference.  That alone would likely make them one-and-out if they did get an invite to the Dance.

With the obvious parity in an overall weak conference, almost anything could happen during the Pac-10 tournament, and any one of three or four teams is capable of pulling it off.

But ASU needs to keep over-achieving just to get there.  And UofA needs to give its kiddie corps time to grow up some more.

So, does it really matter who gets their ticket to the Dance punched?  The music will likely end early for whoever makes it.  Sure, the conference title is exciting and a great accomplishment.  But what about the fans?

It’s tough to brag on your conference when it only sends one team to the NCAA tournament.  And the prospects for an early exit make it even worse.

The 2011 season can’t come soon enough.

(Photo credit: University of California)