By Sam McPherson

The California Golden Bears men’s basketball team has had an uneven season, but they have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament later this month if they can pull it together and rattle off a string of victories in the next two weeks. The odds aren’t in their favor, but crazier things have happened in the history of college basketball.

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Cal is 17-12 right now, and the team has road dates this week in Arizona: Thursday night against the Wildcats and Saturday morning against the Sun Devils. If the Bears can manage to win both those games—and it won’t be easy, as Arizona is 26-3 this season—they can head into the Pac-12 Conference Tournament March 11-14 with some momentum. More important, two wins in Arizona means Cal can finish with a .500 record in the league, and that means a lot to the NCAA Selection Committee.

The Bears have an RPI right now in three digits (101), however, and that isn’t good. With two wins in Arizona and perhaps a run to the conference semifinals, Cal would give itself the best chance to make the tournament. And that would still be a long shot. But with a 9-9 league record and 20-plus wins, the Bears would be making their best argument for a spot, regardless of a poor RPI mark.

The problem is that it’s been two months now since Cal got a “signature” win, and that 81-75 win over then-ranked Washington at home on January 2 seems like a long time ago. The committee likes teams that finish strong, and although the Bears have won six of their last nine to get to where they are right now, that stretch also includes a three-game losing streak. 

Cal broke the slide with a 17-point victory over Oregon State on Sunday, but as noted, they’ll need to really play their best basketball in the next two weeks.

“Every game is important,” Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin said after a loss to Oregon last week. “I think you play and you compete and the most important game right now is Oregon State.”

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Mission accomplished there, so now that statement becomes about Arizona. Currently, the Wildcats are ranked No. 7 in both polls, and it will take a big upset for the Bears to beat them on their home court in Tucson. Yet those are the kinds of wins that end up defining programs and making waves nationally. So why not Cal? Because the Bears did lose to Arizona in Berkeley in late January by 23 points, that’s why.

After that game, Martin acknowledged the obvious: “We just lost to a better team.”

Cal will have to play the game of its season to beat the Wildcats, and if that happens, the Bears still get to face Arizona State about 36 hours later—not a lot of time for recovery, mentally or physically. The Sun Devils are just 15-13 this year, but they were a half-game ahead of Cal in the Pac-12 standings (pending the outcome of Sunday night’s game against the Colorado Buffaloes) at press time.

Also, Arizona State beat the Bears in Berkeley by a whopping 35 points in January, in what was arguably the low point of the Cal season. The Bears were in the midst of a six-game losing streak when that happened.

So, yes: Cal has its work cut out for it, but the team knows what it has to do if it wants to make a splash in March Madness. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for: the directions to get to the Promised Land. What you do with them at that point is entirely the challenge, and for the Bears, it’s a big one.

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Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.