SAN JOSE -- In the universe of college basketball, the Bay Area is a one-and-done neighborhood. We get excited for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Then we move along to something else.
It is happening again. Thursday afternoon and evening inside HP Pavilion, you'd have sworn the place was located in downtown Durham or Lexington or Bloomington. The stands were packed. Fight songs bleated. Painted faces shouted at teams who countered with their own shouting painted faces.
Saturday's doubleheader should be a repeat spectacle. Oregon and Cal followers are even being encouraged to wear yellow/gold shirts and cheer for each other's teams to show Pac-12 solidarity.
Unless you live in these parts, you'd never know that the vast majority of college games in Northern California are played before a vast majority of empty seats. Three years ago, Saint Mary's reached the NCAA Sweet Sixteen and followed it up with some exciting teams -- but it still doesn't consistently sell out cozy 3,500-seat McKeon Pavilion. Cal had at least 2,000 empty seats at many home games this season.
Of course, the Bay Area always gets amped and buzzy about big events. That's why NCAA games in San Jose or Oakland draw throngs. Then the situation returns to normal.
The good news: Cal is the one Bay Area team that could radically change the dynamic. And it could begin on Saturday, when the underdog Bears face fourth-seeded Syracuse.
If Cal should win and create still more thrills next weekend at the Washington, D.C., Regional, that might lead to great things.
There are six Division I men's basketball programs in the Bay Area -- Cal, Stanford, Saint Mary's, USF, Santa Clara and San Jose State. Yet among those, Cal is the one with the profile to make a jump up into a wider and broader pool of appeal. Cal has the largest alumni base of interested fans. It theoretically represents the entire state. It has above-average hoops tradition, including the Jason Kidd era of the 1990s and a 1959 NCAA championship victory.
Thus, if Cal beats Syracuse and makes a run at the Final Four next weekend, the Bears could leverage that. Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, might be excited enough to return for his senior season instead of turning pro. The Bears' much-touted incoming class of recruits could spark consistently deep journeys into March Madness. Casual sports fans would trash their Warriors and Raiders jackets, then flock to Cal games above all others.
All right, let's sober up.
In reality, here is what could occur with another Cal victory followed by a good showing next weekend: The Bears could be in the preseason top 25 for 2013-14 and raise their local profile, filling more seats even in November and December.
Why, even Cal coach Mike Montgomery might buy into that possibility. He can address the popularity-profile topic as well as anyone.
"Would we like to have a program like Kansas?" Montgomery asked. "Sure. So if the 49ers and the Giants and the Sharks and the A's all move, we're going to have a better chance to do that, is my guess. And if they all moved to Kansas, my guess is Kansas ain't going to be Kansas anymore. Dorothy might even move."
So what, exactly, is Montgomery's ambition for his Cal program?
"Win more games," Montgomery said. "I mean, look at the history. I think right now ... we're doing fine. And we'll continue to get better every single year."
As soon as Montgomery took over at Cal in 2008, the subtext was always going to be whether he could match the success he had at Stanford, where he finished his run with 10 straight NCAA tourney teams including three trips to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond. The Bears could be getting to that sort of groove.
That hype about the recruiting class? It's legit. The biggest name is Jabari Bird of Salesian High in Richmond, among the nation's most coveted players. There's also guard Jordan Mathews and 6-foot-11 Kameron Rooks, both from Southern California. They join three-star point guard Sam Singer from Florida.
"We'd like to continue to build this thing," Montgomery said. "Slowly but surely."
Surely but rapidly, a victory over Syracuse would speed up construction. If nothing else, it might turn the Bay Area into a two-and-done neighborhood.
Oregon (27-8) vs. Saint Louis (28-6), 4:10 p.m., HP Pavilion
Cal (21-11) vs. Syracuse (27-9), approximately 6:45 p.m., HP Pavilion