Cal and Stanford could have made everything neat, simple and heart-healthy. Instead, their drives to the NCAA tournament have veered down treacherous, nerve-fraying paths.
A few weeks ago, both teams were in solid shape to earn at-large berths. But after late-season meltdowns, it's panic time on both sides of the Bay.
Whether Saturday's regular-season finales are make-or-break games is impossible to know because of the subtleties of the selection process. (What happens in conference tournament across the country next week will affect the size of the proverbial bubble.)
But Cal (18-12, 9-8 Pac-12) should adopt a must-win approach, with all accompanying urgency, when it hosts Colorado. Stanford (18-11, 9-8) would be wise to do the same against Utah.
On an immediate basis, the results will affect seeding for the Pac-12 tournament next week — the Bears and Cardinal are in a four-team tie for fifth place -- but the implications for March Madness will undoubtedly loom over the proceedings.
As the resumes crumble, the pressure mounts.
The Bears opened league play with five consecutive wins but have lost eight of their past 12. Their power rating is in the danger zone (59). They have just three wins over top-50 opponents, and they're without a marquee victory in non-conference play.
What's more, the Bears are failing the so-called eye test on a regular basis. (The selection process includes a subjective component.) Mike Montgomery's teams are usually sound and efficient at this time of year. These Bears are scattered and sloppy, inexplicably dislodged from their axis.
Stanford's situation isn't quite as dire. The Cardinal has dropped three in a row after it fumbled a late lead against Colorado. (Losses of that nature have been commonplace in the Johnny Dawkins era.)
But Stanford claims a respectable power rating (46), four top-50 wins and a marquee non-conference victory (at Connecticut). Its schedule is more difficult than Cal's, as well.
Both teams, however, are losing control of their NCAA destiny: The late-season slides have made them vulnerable to upsets in conference tournaments elsewhere.
Whenever a team that wouldn't qualify for the at-large pool rises up and wins its conference tournament -- and the accompanying automatic berth into March Madness -- the pool shrinks.
For example: Wichita State is the only team from the Missouri Valley Conference worthy of an at-large berth. If the second-ranked Shockers win the MVC tournament, it's a one-bid league. If someone else wins the automatic berth, then Wichita State falls into the at-large field, the MVC becomes a two-bid league and a bubble team (from the Pac-12, Big Ten or wherever) gets knocked out.
For the Bay Area teams -- and Cal in particular, it seems -- the path into the NCAAs isn't as simple as winning Saturday.
They need to win Saturday and show well in the Pac-12 tournament and get favorable results in other conferences.
It didn't have to be this difficult.
Victory is essential, but both teams need help.
Stanford needs to beat Utah and hope Arizona, Arizona State and Cal all lose. In that situation, the Cardinal would win all tiebreakers for the No. 4 seed.
The Bears have four paths to a bye (all leading to the No. 4 seed):
1. Cal beats Colorado, Arizona State beats Oregon State, Stanford beats Utah and Arizona beat Oregon.
2. Cal beats Colorado, Oregon State beats ASU, Stanford beats Utah and Arizona beats Oregon.
3. Cal beats Colorado, Oregon State beats Arizona State, Stanford beats Utah and Oregon beats Arizona.
4. Cal beats Colorado, Oregon State beats Arizona State, Utah beats Stanford and Oregon beats Arizona.
Staff writer Jeff Faraudo contributed to this report. For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5716.
Coach looking for first NCAA tournament appearance with Stanford.
Cal coach has watched his team lose eight of last 12 games.
Utah (20-9, 9-8 Pac-12) at Stanford (18-11, 9-8), 11:30 a.m. Pac-12 Networks
Colorado (21-9, 10-7 Pac-12) at Cal (18-12, 9-8), 3:30 p.m. Pac-12 Networks