Though the NCAA is trying to push the “First Four” as the beginning of March Madness, everybody knows that the bonanza of games on Thursday and Friday are the real first round of perhaps our country’s best sporting event (shout-out to fellow Bay Area school St. Mary’s for their victory on Tuesday). It’s “madness” largely because of these first two rounds — a time when alumni, students, fans, and degenerate gamblers come together and cut the nation’s productivity by at least half. Each time the tournament comes around, I find myself in awe of how college football is so reluctant to create something similar. College football may be about ten times as popular as college basketball, but March Madness is about 100 times as popular as the BCS. This seems like very simple math.
Of course, math will not help you pick the bracket. Nothing will. There is literally nothing, and the only “sure” thing is that the 1-seeds will beat the 16-seeds. Past that, you don’t really get any help. Seeds are nice, but they definitely do not tell the whole story. The perfect example happens to be the Cal (12) and UNLV (5) game on Thursday.
These two teams have already met once. When December started, Cal was undefeated at 6-0 with a three-game stretch where they were supposed to display their tourney-worthiness. In typiCAL fashion, the Golden Bears dropped each game, going 0-3 during the most important stretch in non-conference play. The game against UNLV was the second of these three games, as well as the closest — the Rebels ended up winning by one in Berkeley in the final seconds.
Luckily, the Bears had an awesome run later in the season (dimmed slightly by two bad losses at the end of the season, UGH), and ended up wooing the committee into giving them a golden ticket. Even better, they have a chance to play a team they’ve already played down to the wire. And, even better, they get to play the game just about an hour south of Berkeley in San Jose, effectively giving them a home game.
These are certainly all positives, but everything must be thrown out the window. One-and-done tournaments like this weight resilience as much as talent, and any lack of the latter can be compensated by the strength of the former. That said, stopping UNLV freshman forward Anthony Bennett is going to be key; he leads the team in both points (16.1) and rebounds (8.2) per game. He’s been playing great lately, but Richard Solomon is going to have to step it up to another level for a game like this.
Obviously, Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs have to get theirs. If either of them is having an off day, the Bears will lose this game, and it will likely be ugly. Mike Montgomery has been here before, and that type of experience can’t be completely counted out; hopefully, he has emphasized more discipline with the ball and better perimeter defense. Cal’s seven-game winning streak was awesome, and the Bears need to return to playing that brand of basketball (easier said than done).
Anyway, enjoy the multitude of games tomorrow and make sure to ignore your work to soak in the wonder of these next four days. The Cal-UNLV game will be on at 4:27 PDT on truTV.
FINAL FOUR: Louisville, Wisconsin, Michigan, Miami.
*These picks will likely change multiple times throughout the night.