Last season, the Cal men’s basketball team began the month of February with an upset over then-No. 10 Oregon at Haas Pavilion. Students rushed the court. But the Bears dropped a game to Arizona State just days later.
And then Cal ripped off seven straight wins, extinguishing any doubt the team would miss the NCAA Tournament.
This season, Cal (15-8, 6-4 Pac-12) is hoping to mirror last year’s late run. The ingredients are already in place. After upsetting No. 1 Arizona on Feb. 1, Cal dropped a game to Stanford at home. The only question remaining is whether the Bears can now follow up with a streak of wins as they did last year. But with only eight games left in the regular season, the Bears are running out of chances to bolster their NCAA resume.
“I hope (the players) understand it’s down to where (the conference) is going to separate pretty soon,” said head coach Mike Montgomery. “We have to be a part of the positive separation … We are certainly not out of the woods.”
On Wednesday, the Bears will travel to Pullman, Wash., to battle the Cougars (9-14, 2-9) at 8 p.m. in the second regular season matchup between the two teams. Cal walked over Washington State when the two faced each other in January, with Cal shooting 56.9 percent from the field. After a strong second half, the Bears ended up winning 76-55 in the game that would come to be the final win of the Bears’ then five-game winning streak.
But in that game, the Cougars were without DaVonte Lacy, Washington State’s leading scorer. Lacy is primarily a sharpshooter for the Cougars, getting a majority of his points from behind the 3-point line. The junior guard is often seen near the corner on offense, waiting for a chance to loft deep shots that he connects on 41.4 percent of the time.
Lacy is easily the Cougars’ most potent offensive threat. He has the highest usage percentage and highest effective shooting percentage of any player on the team. The sharpshooter is also the team’s highest scorer, averaging 18.5 points per contest.
“Anytime you’ve already played a team, they have time to make a adjustments and prepare better,” said Cal junior guard Ricky Kreklow.
Still, Washington State is one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 with or without Lacy. The Cougars are the least efficient offensive team and second-least efficient defensive team in the conference. Their ineptitude on both sides of the ball have made the Cougars one of only two teams in the Pac-12 with a losing record.
But Cal has been erratic as of late. Winners in just one of their last four, it’s impossible to say whether the Bears will play up or down to their competition. And the Bears have already lost to USC — another team dwelling in the Pac-12 gutter. That inconsistency, combined with the return of Lacy and the trip north, means the Cougars could easily challenge the Bears.
“This week is important to us,” Montgomery said. “But a lot of people, I’m sure, are saying the same thing.”