Spander: Bay Area schools step into the spotlight 

Mike Montgomery’s supposition was impossible to argue: “No matter how good you think you are,” the Cal coach said, “you’re playing other people who have won games.”

Then again, those other people are playing you, because you’ve also won games.

Enough games in the case of the Golden Bears, or their sort-of-neighbors from the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel, St. Mary’s, to get into the NCAA Tournament.

That those two institutions of higher scoring made it in a year former champions UCLA, North Carolina, Indiana and Connecticut did not, should be considered a triumph.

Monty and St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett offer no disagreement.

“I’m proud of this team,” said Bennett, cognizant that people three time zones away probably don’t have a clue where Moraga is (or maybe even Berkeley). “I’m proud of our program.”

Cal is to face Louisville in Jacksonville, Fla., in its opener, while the Gaels have been assigned Richmond (the school in Virginia, not the city north of Berkeley) in Providence, R.I.

Somebody on the basketball committee must want to keep the airlines in business. 

Montgomery on Sunday looked out at a roomful of newspaper and radio-TV folk and gave his usual assessment. Where the heck had they been all season when the Bears were winning the Pac-10 Conference?

“I’m old school,” Montgomery reminded. “I think the regular season is important.”

What a novel concept. The NCAA and the CBS, however, earn their money from the tournament (so do a lot of sharpies who run office pools), so we are made to believe that what happened until now has no redeeming social importance.

If you don’t count getting seeded eighth (Cal) or 10th (St. Mary’s).

The Gaels, having won the West Coast Conference tournament, were in the Incas as of a week ago. But Cal, despite taking the Pac-10 regular season, lost in the conference tournament final. And all Sunday morning, on eastern-biased (or should that be eastern-Bilased?) ESPN, Jay Bilas was insisting the Bears didn’t deserve inclusion.

As a matter of record, Bilas grew up in Southern Cal, played for Duke, went to law school and is opinionated.

From Cal guard Patrick Christopher came some West Coast logic on the Bilas viewpoint. “It doesn’t matter,” Christopher said, “because we’re in. ... Everybody’s not always going to be on your side.”

Last year, St. Mary’s dealt with the fate Bilas wished upon Cal this year, a lack of acceptance. The Gaels were noninvitees.

“I like doing it the way we did it this year,” Bennett said of the automatic qualification. “You’re not in suspense the whole time. ... The only thing I can do now is to prepare them to try and get them as comfortable as possible in practice”

Cal’s players say they’re comfortable — a legitimate contention since they were in the tournament last year, when they lost in the first round to Maryland — and have a starting lineup of seniors.

“When it comes down to experience vs. talent,” said Montgomery, “you’d prefer experienced talent. I’d rather have five guys like this. This group has developed into good players.”

Good enough to go where Carolina, UCLA, Indiana and Connecticut could not.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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