With three games remaining, Cal men’s basketball shoots for Pac-12 championship

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A sports team’s peak is the point at which it is playing its best.

Peak too soon — as the Cal men’s basketball team did last year — and championships are lost and postseasons shortened. Peak too late, and a championship and postseason may not even be options.

This year’s Bears (18-9, 10-5 in the Pac-12) have won seven of their last eight games, including three top-25 victories. After a 3-4 start in conference play, Cal entered the week alone in fourth place, just one game out of first place. The squad is widely considered to be off the bubble and in the NCAA Tournament if the regular season were to end today.

It may sound like the Bears are at the top of their game, but Robert Thurman thinks the best has yet to come.

“I don’t think we’ve reached our peak yet,” said the backup center. “I think we still have more to go.”

Three to go, actually, all at home. The stretch run begins with Thursday’s 6 p.m. contest against Utah (11-15, 3-11), a club that lost to Cal, 62-57, back on Jan. 24. Colorado and Stanford, two squads that have already beaten the Bears this season, come to Haas Pavilion on Saturday and Wednesday, respectively.

None of those teams ranks above Cal in the Pac-12 standings, so in order to secure a league title, all the Bears can do is win and hope the conference leaders don’t.

“We have to stay focused for one more week and one day,” said point guard Justin Cobbs on Tuesday. “If we win three games, the rest is out of our hands.

The squad’s position is reminiscent of last season. Led by seniors Harper Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, Cal was in first for much of the season but lost out on the league title after consecutive losses to Colorado and Stanford to close out the season.

The downward spiral did not end there. The Bears won only one game in the Pac-12 Tournament and sneaked into the NCAA Tournament, where they lost handily in the Play-In round.

The players are not worried about another late-season collapse.

“We’re going to go the opposite way and get some vengeance,” Thurman said. “Jorge and Harper didn’t have a Pac-12 championship in their senior year. That’s something we really want to avenge.”

Last season, when Gutierrez and Allen Crabbe were missing their shots, the squad did not have a whole lot to fall back on. That is not the case anymore.

On Saturday, Cal defeated Oregon State despite just six points (2-of-12 shooting) from Crabbe, the league’s leading scorer. In fact, the Bears shot under 41 percent in both games this weekend, yet they won because they forced their opponents into even worse shooting percentages.

“I think we’ve learned how to make the game ugly when the ball’s not going in on the other end,” Thurman said.

Cal coach Mike Montgomery attributed the defensive resurgence to improved focus. He does not expect that concentration to waver Thursday night, regardless of the Utes’ conference-dwelling record.

“Utah is scary because they play everybody tough,” Montgomery said.

If the red-hot Bears have indeed yet to reach their peak, then that is even scarier.

Jonathan Kuperberg covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanKupe.