* Saturday at Tempe, Ariz., 3 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)
Cal plays its most important game of the season on Saturday afternoon at Arizona State.
At least until next Wednesday at home against Utah.
The Bears have three games left on the Pac-12 Conference regular-season schedule and they may need to win two of them to assure themselves an NCAA tournament bid, presuming they don’t win the league tournament and its automatic bid.
They close out next week in Berkeley against Utah and Colorado, two teams better at home than on the road, but good teams nonetheless.
Cal currently sits in a four-way tie for third place at 9-6, a logjam that also includes Arizona State, Colorado and Stanford.
By several measures, the Bears currently reside at the bottom of that tangle:
– Their RealTimeRPI computer ranking is worst of the bunch: 26. Colorado; 31. ASU; 42. Stanford; 49. Cal.
– Their 18-10 overall record is worst among the four.
– Their current projected NCAA tournament seed, according to Jerry Palm of CBS Sports, is worst of the group: ASU is a No. 8, both Colorado and Stanford are No. 9, and Cal is a No. 11.
It hasn’t helped that the Bears have been trampled in two of their past three games, losing 86-66 to UCLA at home a week ago, then 87-59 at Arizona on Wednesday night.
Here was Palm’s reaction on Thursday morning:
“California lost at Arizona, which isn’t necessarily all that damaging in and of itself, but the Bears got crushed. That’s their second blowout loss to a top team in the league in three games. UCLA pounded Cal in Berkeley last week. It’s one thing to lose, but another to not be competitive, especially at home.”
Complicating things further is the 11th-hour emergence of Oregon, which has won four straight, including Thursday’s double-overtime road win over a short-handed UCLA squad. The Ducks are among four teams tied for seventh through 10th place at 7-8.
Among those teams, Oregon may have the NCAA selection commimttee’s eye because of its No. 33 RPI rank, sculpted primarily through its 13-0 start to the season. Palm currently projects seven Pac-12 teams into the tournament, and he has the Ducks as a No. 10 — ahead of a Cal team sitting two games in front of Oregon in the conference standings.
So while the Bears might be in the field if the season ended now (Friday afternoon), they are balancing precariously, one or two missteps from the three most dreaded letters in college basketball: NIT.
Also at stake the next three games is seeding into the Pac-12 tournament. The top four regular-season finishers earn byes directly into the quarterfinal round, after the other eight battle on opening day.
Which brings us back to Arizona State. The Sun Devils, 20-8 overall, are 15-1 at home, including a win over Arizona. They beat Cal 89-78 in overtime at Berkeley, thanks to 29 points from Jahii Carson and 22 more from Jermaine Marshall, whose 3-pointer forced the OT period.
ASU had lost two in a row — at Colorado and Utah — before keeping Stanford at arm’s length in a decisive 76-64 win on Wednesday.
The Bears aren’t yet in must-territory. But they can see it from here.