The Cal men’s basketball team last played Utah on Jan. 14, and what happened at Haas Pavilion was arguably the most embarrassing event customers paid to see all winter.
The Utes’ 81-45 loss looked ugly enough on paper, but watching the diminutive red-and-black lineup brick shots was a sight that offended even the most casual of fans.
Since then, Utah has dismissed its starting point guard, lost eight of its past nine games and generally struggled to play competent basketball.
Cal, tied with Washington for the conference lead, will again play the Utes Thursday night. This time they play in Salt Lake City, where the home team at least has a chance for a less lopsided box score.
For the Bears (22-6, 12-3 in the Pac-12), the 6 p.m. PST tipoff at Jon M. Huntsman Center does not pose an obvious threat to their hopes of winning a second conference championship in three years.
“They’re a better team than they were,” said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery.
Coach-speak or not, that assertion is hard to swallow.
The Utes (5-21, 2-12) aren’t last in the conference, but they did lose to USC, the only team with fewer wins in Pac-12 play. They have dropped their past seven games by an average of 13.4 points — with Cal, Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State still left on the schedule, they could conceivably end the season on a ignominious 11-game streak.
Advanced basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, who plugs in numbers for all 345 Division I teams, currently ranks Utah at No. 305, by far the lowest among all the Big Six squads. Next worst is Arizona State, sitting at No. 246.
It’s hard to figure how a roster that lost its leading scorer, Josh “Jiggy” Watkins, to an undisclosed team violation can possibly be a better team than it was a month ago.
Then again, the Utes’ offense in Berkeley consisted mostly of Watkins — all 5-foot-11, 205 pounds of him — charging down the lane, throwing his body into two defenders and missing an ill-conceived shot. He may have been the team’s most talented player, but Cal needed only throw bodies at him to shut down Utah’s entire attack.
There were also off-court issues. Before his dismissal, Watkins had previously served a one-game suspension for sleeping through class and arriving late to practice. The transgressions weren’t among the worst seen in college athletics, but even if the win column has yet to benefit, this is the sort of addition by subtraction that a first-year coach like Larry Krystkowiak needed to initiate a culture change.
“I think Larry has done a good job,” Montgomery said. “Just had so many issues early on. They have a lineup now. The kids know this is it.”
Krystkowiak, who played under Montgomery at Montana, will have a difficult task against his former mentor. Montgomery’s squads rarely underachieve, and several months of his tutelage usually has them meshing by season’s end.
One notable emergence is point guard Justin Cobbs, whose first career double-double came against the Utes and is now the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week. After scoring a career-high 28 points against Oregon last Thursday, Cobbs followed up two days later with a second double-double — including a career-high 13 assists.
“I’m a lot more confident,” Cobbs said. “Picking spots when to be aggressive … I’m understanding the offense more.”