Although Cal was a long way from an NCAA Tournament berth this season, the Bears have made 19 appearances in March Madness.
Cal’s postseason performance was better in some years than others. We rank Cal’s top eight NCAA Tournament performances, starting with a simple list of the top eight, then providing some context for each of those seasons.
1. 1959 – National champion
2. 1960 – National runnerup
3. 1993 – Sweet 16
4. 1997 – Sweet 16
5. 1958 – Elite Eight
6. 1957 – Elite Eight
7. 1946 – Final Four
8. 2013 – Second Round
Cal captured its one and only NCAA basketball championship in 1959, and had to navigate through some star power to do it.
Pete Newell’s Bears were unranked to start the season and were just 9-4 after a loss to Stanford, but they then won their final 12 regular-season games heading into the 23-team NCAA Tournament. Cal, ranked No. 11 then by, brushed aside Utah 71-53 in its NCAA Tournament opener at the Cow Palace and eliminated Saint Mary’s 66-46, also at the Cow Palace, in the second round.
The Bears were big underdogs in the national semifinals in Louisville, Ky., but Cal upset fifth-ranked Cincinnati, which was led by Oscar Robertson. Cal trailed by four at halftime, but controlled the second half for a 64-58 victory. Robertson, who was named national player of the year for the second time in 1959, had 19 points, 19 rebounds and nine assists, but he shot just 5 of 16 from the field and was held well under his average of 32.6 points per game.
Cal guard Bob Dalton claims that at the start of the game he went up to Robertson, stuck out his hand and said, “My name’s Dalton, what’s yours?”
In the championship game, Cal faced 10th-ranked West Virginia and first-team All-American Jerry West. West had 28 points and 11 rebounds, but Cal, again the underdog, won 71-70 on a Darrall Imhoff’s follow shot with 17 seconds left.
With many of the players from the championship team back, Cal was actually a better team in 1959-60. Ranked No. 4 in the first poll of the season, Cal entered the 25-team NCAA Tournament ranked No. 2 with a 23-1 record and riding a 15-game winning streak.
Cal had to win three games to reach the Final Four, easily blowing by all three -- Idaho State 71-44, Santa Clara 69-49 and Oregon 70-49.
The Bears could stay home for the Final Four, which was held at the Cow Palace in Daly City. Again Cincinnati and Robertson awaited Cal in the national semifinals, and the Bearcats were ranked No. 1 this time. Robertson, national player of the year for a third time, had a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, but Imhoff had 25 points and 11 rebounds in the Bears’ 77-69 win.
Things went south the next night as Cal could not recover less than 24 hours later, when third-ranked Ohio State jumped out to an 18-point halftime lead and routed the Bears 75-55. Jerry Lucas had 16 points for the Buckeyes, and John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried added 12 and 13 points, respectively. Ohio State shot 67.4 percent from the field for the game, compared with 33.9 percent for Cal.
A strange season ended with startling success. Coach Lou Campanelli was replaced by 29-year assistant coach Todd Bozeman with the Bears holding a 10-7 record. The Bears, led by freshman Jason Kidd and sophomore Lamond Murray, then won nine of their remaining 10 regular-season games to get into the NCAA Tournament.
The sixth-seeded Bears beat 11th-seeded LSU in a tense first-round contest in Rosemont, Ill., 66-64 on Jason Kidd’s contorted basket with a second remaining, what LSU coach Dale Brown called a pretzel shot. Brown also said Cal did not have a prayer in its next game, against Duke.
The big news came in the next round, when Cal stunned third-seeded and two-time defending champ Duke 82-77. Cal let an 18-point lead slip away, but Kidd came up with a big three-point play at the end to pull off the upset. Murray had 28 points and 10 rebounds, while Kidd had 11 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds. Bobby Hurley had 32 points, but the cover of the next issue of Sports Illustrated showed Kidd shooting over Hurley with the inside lead story titled “A changing of the guard.”
Alas, Cal’s run ended against Kansas in St. Louis the next weekend, when the Bears let a four-point lead early in the second half evaporate into a 93-76 Jayhawks victory.
Ben Braun’s first season at Cal brought discipline and organization to the talent he inherited from Todd Bozeman, helping the Bears finish the regular season 21-8 and 12-6 in the Pac-10. But Cal guard Ed Gray, who was the Pac-10 player of the year that season and was second in the nation in scoring at 24.8 points per game, had suffered a season-ending broken foot with three regular-season games remaining. No one else on the team averaged more than 12.6 points.
Football star Tony Gonzalez entered the starting lineup as a result, and was a key player in the Bears’ 55-52 escape against 12th-seeded Princeton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He scored all five of Cal’s points in the final minute when the Bears broke away from a 50-50 tie.
The big story came two days later, when Cal, still without Gray, had to face fourth-seeded Villanova with Randy Duck slowed by a severe ankle sprain. Duck played and scored 16 points, and Gonzalez came up with the game of his life, collecting 23 points and outplaying Villanova’s Tim Thomas, who would be the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft later that year. The Bears won 75-68.
Cal’s run ended in the Sweet 16 against top-seeded North Carolina, but not before Cal made the Tar Heels sweat. The Bears led by seven points with 9:48 remaining in the game, but Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, who were the fourth and fifth overall picks in the 1998 NBA Draft, led Dean Smith’s crew to a 63-57 victory.
A month later Gonzalez was the 13th overall pick in the NFL Draft and on his way to a Hall of Fame football career.
Clip of Cal’s game against North Carolina are near the end of this video
This showing set the stage for Cal’s national championship run the following year. Pete Newell’s Bears finished the regular season 18-8 and tied for first in the Pacific Coast Conference with Oregon State. The Bears got a bye in the first round of the 24-team NCAA Tournament, then recorded a 54-43 victory at the Cow Palace over Idaho State, which was 22-5 after beating Arizona State in the first round.
Cal’s season ended at the same venue in the national quarterfinals, as Seattle eliminated Cal 66-62 in overtime when Elgin Baylor scored 26 points and added 18 rebounds. Seattle advanced to the championship game before losing to Kentucky.
A look at Baylor in the game against Kentucky
This was Pete Newell’s first really strong team, and the Bears finished the regular season 20-4. The Bears opened the 23-team NCAA Tournament with a convincing 86-59 victory over BYU as Larry Friend scored 25 points. Cal figured to have a good chance in the national quarterfinals against San Francisco, which was the two-time defending national champ but was just 18-8 in the 1956-57 regular season. But Cal suffered a 50-46 loss to the Dons, who subsequently got hammered by Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain 80-56 in the national semifinals.
A look at the USF team that at beat Cal. The Dons could not contend with Kansas’ Wilt Chamberlain
How can a Cal team that reached the Final Four be placed so low on this list? Two reasons: One, the National Invitation Tournament, not the NCAA Tournament, was the most prestigious postseason tournament at the time, a distinction that changed in the mid-1950s. Two, there were only eight teams in the 1946 NCAA Tournament, so Cal had to win only one game to reach the national semifinals.
Cal went 29-4 during the 1945-46 regular season and won the PCC with an 11-1 mark. Andy Wolfe scored 17 points to help the Bears to a 50-44 first-round victory over Colorado, which entered the game with an 11-5 record and finished second in the Mountain States Athletic Conference behind Wyoming. But the Bears were overmatched in the national semifinals in a 52-35 loss to Oklahoma A&M (now known as Oklahoma State), which featured star center Bob Kurland and went on to win the national title for a second straight year. Cal then lost the third-place game to Ohio State 63-45.
You can see that Cal did not do a lot in the 1946 tournament to be proud of, but a Final Four is still a Final Four, even if it did not carry that label at the time.
The Bears finished the 2012-13 regular season 20-11 overall and in a three-way tie for second in the Pac-12 with a 12-6 conference mark. But it turned out to be Cal’s best postseason performance under Mike Montgomery.
The Bears lost their last two games before the NCAA Tournament and barely avoided having to play a First Four game in the 68-team field. Cal was seeded 12th, and its first-round opponent, UNLV, was a No. 5 seed that had beaten Cal 76-75 in a December game at Haas Pavilion when Quintrell Thomas scored the winning basket with 1.2 seconds left.
Things were different in the postseason, though. Aided by a supportive crowd in a game played in San Jose, the Bears defeated UNLV 64-61. Cal missed four of six free throws down the stretch to allow the Runnin’ Rebels to pull within two, but Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, made a pair of free throws with 1.6 seconds left to clinch the upset. Anthony Bennett, who would be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft that year, scored 15 points for UNLV but was 4 of 11 from the field.
Cal made a late run against fourth-seeded Syracuse in the next round, but the Orange held on for a 66-60 victory on its way to a Final Four berth. Richard Solomon had 22 points and 14 rebounds for Cal, but the Bears’ top two players, Crabbe and Justin Cobbs, combined for just 13 points and nine turnovers.
Here’s the entire Cal game against UNLV