Cal opens its quest for an NIT championship Tuesday night at Haas Pavilion against Cal-State Bakersfield. The Bears of the mighty Pac-12 conference undoubtedly like their chances against the Roadrunners.
They probably did two and half years ago, too, when they hosted Bakersfield in a final December tune-up prior to the conference season. But, that night the Roadrunners surprised the Bears, 58-55. That was Cuonzo Martin's first year as head coach and perhaps his initial clue that he wasn't in Tennessee anymore. Cal basketball often does not follow predictions.
"We lost to them my first year," Martin said in a teleconference Sunday night after the Bears learned they were headed to the NIT and not the NCAA as they had hoped. "Coach (Rod) Barnes does a tremendous job. They play hard, play tough, play together. That is a well-coached team."
Barnes, 51, is in his fifth year as head coach in Bakersfield, and has quite a resume. After five years as an assistant at Ole Miss, his alma mater he became head coach there in 1998 and seemed to be on the path to great coaching success.
In his first year he guided the Rebels into the NCAA Tournament and they even won a game, the school's first ever in the Big Dance. In 2001 he had the Rebels in the NCAA's Sweet 16, and won the James Naismith Award as the national Coach of the Year.
But things eventually went downhill in Oxford, and he was fired after the 2006 season, during which the Rebels followed a 13-3 start with a 1-13 finish. After a year as an assistant at Oklahoma, he was hired as head coach at Georgia State. Four uninspiring years later (44-79) he was fired again.
CSU-Bakersfield hired him in 2011 and some after a couple of mediocre seasons has brought the Roadrunners some success. He just was named WAC Coach of the Year a second straight time, took the WAC Tournament and its NCAA bid last year and were this year's regular season champs.
But a night after a four-overtime victory over Utah Valley in the WAC Tournament semifinal, the Roadrunners lost to New Mexico State in the title game, and thus were denied a second straight NCAA berth.
Much as Martin and the Bears were disappointed to be playing in the NIT, so were the Roadrunners, whose NCAA appearance last year was the first in the school's history had inspired loftier ambitions. But for CSUB, which four years ago was without any conference affiliation at all, this stage is still a step-up from what they are used to.
"It's always a big deal," said Barnes as his team was boarding a bus Monday afternoon in Bakersfield. "Especially the timing, being in the postseason. You always want to be there. Look where we are. Four years ago we weren't even in a conference, then last year we won the (WAC) tournament and this year we get to compete in one of the oldest tournaments there is, playing against a great program. We're excited about it.
"We'd rather (be doing) this than not going anyplace and coming off a losing season. So you've got embrace this when it happens. There are a lot of schools and a lot of coaches who would love to be playing right now."
Forward Jaylin Airington, a 6-4 senior out of East Chicago, Ind., leads the team in scoring at 14.6 ppg. He was a first-string all-WAC this year, as well as being named to the WAC All-Defensive team.
Guard Damiyne Durham, a 6-0 shooting guard out of Oakwood, Tx., who originally committed to Baylor, averages 12.6 points, second on the team. He does it coming off the bench. Although he has not starts, he does put in 21 minutes a game.
Moataz Aly, a native of Egypt, is Roadrunners only true big man at 6-10. Although he has blocked 48 shots in 27 games, by far the most on the team, he does tend to get in foul trouble and has fouled out of seven games this year.
The Roadrunners have held their opponents to 63.0 points per game and 38.6 per cent field goal shooting, so obviously, much like Cal, they rely on their defense to win games.
"They are hard-nosed, they grind you out defensively," Martin said "They take their shots. They make you work when you're on offense. When they're on offense they force you to make bad decisions, so you can't make good shots, whether it's on the perimeter or the interior."
The defense was almost enough to get the Roadrunners into the NCAAs. After their four-overtime marathon they were up, 39-26 on New Mexico State, five minutes into the second half of the WAC title game. But then the Aggies went on a 21-2 run that decided things.
"You've got to tip your cap to Bakersfield," New Mexico State coach Paul Weir said afterwards. "They have an amazing team. For 28 minutes they were beating us pretty good. Thankfully, these guys were able to get us on a run."
The Aggies attempted only 14 first-half shots and went more than 13 minutes between field goals at one stretch.
Now the Roadrunners will try to repeat their success of 2004 when they took that same bus ride up to Berkeley and surprised the Bears.
"They've got a few guys that were on that team," Barnes said. "And the coaches were there. So we're not going to surprise them. They'll be ready for us. But we're at the stage now where we don't want to be overlooked. We want to be recognized as a good program. This team has earned the right to recognized.
"We know they're going to be ready. But we'll be ready also."
Cal offered no updates on the status of forward Jabari Bird, who sustained a concussion in the Bears loss to Oregon Friday night.
This will be the fourth meeting between the two schools. Cal won the first two in 1978 and in 2012.
This could be the last Haas appearance for Ca forward Ivan Rabb, who is expected to declare for the NBA draft after this, his sophomore season.
CSUB has two other double figure scorers, Dedrick Basile at 12.1 ppg and Matt Smith at 10.7.