The seventh-seeded Cougars (18-13) scored an average of 89.3 points while winning their past three games. The most recent was a 94-74 rout of visiting Oregon on Saturday.
Washington State went 2-0 in the regular season against the 10th-seeded Golden Bears (12-19), who have lost four of their past five games and 14 of 17. Cal was shellacked while losing its last two games by an average of 27.5 points — 71-44 at Arizona State last Thursday and 89-61 at #2 Arizona on Saturday.
The winner faces the second seed, #13 UCLA, in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
The Cougars’ late-season success has some wondering if they could follow in the footsteps of last season’s Oregon State squad. The Beavers ripped through the Pac-12 tourney as a #5 seed to win the title and then made a memorable Elite Eight run in the NCAA Tournament.
“Last year, we were talking about how thin the margin is,” Washington State coach Kyle Smith said during a press conference. “I feel like we’re playing better. Coming off the Oregon game, I’m excited to see how we do.”
While the offensive uptick was welcome, the Cougars allowed 79.3 points during the three wins, raising their season average to 65.3 allowed per game.
The Golden Bears are struggling but did play the Cougars close in both losses — 65-57 at Pullman, Wash., on Jan. 15 and 68-64 at home in Berkeley, Calif., on Feb. 5.
Cal’s season was already in freefall mode when it lost star forward Andre Kelly (averages of 13.4 points, 8.4 rebounds) to an ankle injury against Southern California on Jan. 29.
Still, the Golden Bears weren’t very competitive against the Arizona schools and coach Mark Fox wasn’t happy after Saturday’s loss to Arizona.
“We got a little fatigued and made some costly errors there in the second half defensively,” Fox said. “Against a team with as much talent as they have, you cannot afford to do that.”
Cal point guard Joel Brown (knee) missed the Arizona contest and his status is undetermined. Guard Jordan Shepherd leads the Golden Bears with a 14.5 scoring average.
Washington State is led by guard Michael Flowers (14.2 ppg). Big man Mouhamed Gueye (ankle) was on crutches earlier this week, but Smith said he is fine.