Cal men’s basketball enters Pac-12 tournament with second shot at a title

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The Cal men’s basketball team was on a roll, the winners of seven straight before coming to a sudden arboreal stop against Stanford last Wednesday, leaving the squad one game short of a conference title. While the streak put the Bears in line for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament, they enter this week’s Pac-12 Tournament resolved to not let another championship slip away.

“We don’t want to go into the tournament satisfied with a bid to the NCAA,” said point guard Justin Cobbs. “We want to win the championship game Saturday night.”

Cal (20-10, 12-6 in the Pac-12), a thin squad that usually only goes about eight deep, will need to win three games in three days at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to hit jackpot: an automatic berth in the Big Dance. The second-seeded Bears, who received a first-round bye, begin in Thursday’s quarterfinals with a 6 p.m. matchup with Utah.

The Utes (14-17, 6-13), a No. 10 seed, upset a short-handed USC squad, 69-66, in the opening round on Wednesday.

Mike Montgomery’s club swept the season series with Utah, but there is no denying the difficulty in beating a team that third time. With that said, Cal defeated the Utes more easily than perhaps any other conference foe. When the squads last met two weeks ago, the Bears shut down Utah’s offense, forcing the Utes into a 29.1 percent shooting effort.

That kind of defensive proficiency was not present in Cal’s regular-season finale against the Cardinal, which shot an unseemly 9-of-17 from 3-point range.

“We have to defend,” Montgomery said. “We were defending really well, and that’s the reason we were winning. It is what keeps us in games. We have to take pride in it.”

The Bears will need a renewed focus on defense even against an anemic offense like Utah’s because, as Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe said, “any team in the conference can be beat.”

Indeed, the league is as balanced as it has been in years. One game separated both the top-four teams and the next five teams in the final Pac-12 standings. At the onset of the tournament, it was conceivable that any one of those nine schools could take home the trophy.

Conference champion UCLA could potentially meet Arizona in a semifinal matchup between what is projected to be the Pac-12’s two highest-seeded NCAA tournament teams. Fifth-seeded Colorado won’t be surprising anyone this weekend after winning the tournament last year as the No. 6 seed.

Should Cal emerge victorious against the Utes, its road to Saturday night’s finale will likely go through Oregon. The Ducks, seeded third, let their conference lead slip away in consecutive losses to close out the regular season.

“I really do not think there is a clear-cut favorite,” Montgomery said. “I defy anyone to say they are playing way better than anyone else right now.”

But in the wide-open tournament, the Bears, winners of nine of their last 11, are as good a gamble as any.

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