Las Vegas is the perfect host for this week’s Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament: with a wide-open field, every team is a gamble. Cal appeared to be the favorites eight days ago, having won nine of its last 10 games. But the Bears failed to grab the tournament’s top seed, losing 83-70 to Stanford on their home floor a week ago. Then, Washington State knocked off UCLA and Colorado and Utah beat Oregon.
When the dust finally settled, Cal (20-10, 12-6) found itself in the No. 2 spot and they’ll take on the winner of Wednesday night’s game between No. 7 USC (14-17, 9-9) and No. 10 Utah (13-17, 5-13) on Thursday at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“I really do not think there’s a clear-cut favorite,” coach Mike Montgomery said, adding: “I don’t know that I would discount anybody.”
At this point, Cal appears to be headed to the NCAA Tournament, but a first-round loss could put the bid in jeopardy. Last year, the top-seeded Washington Huskies were left out of March Madness after suffering an upset in their first game of the Pac-12 tournament.
Montgomery said the Bears’ best option is to win.
“The more games we win there, the better our chances,” he said. “The obvious thing would be to win the tournament.”
The key, he said, is playing with defensive intensity. After holding opponents to an average of 57.7 points per game during their 10-game hot streak, the Bears surrendered 83 points to the Cardinal last week.
“It takes a lot of hard work,” Montgomery said. “It’s not easy, it’s painful and it should be painful. We’ve got to get back to doing that.”
As usual, Cal will rely heavily on Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe and second team All-Pac-12 selection Justin Cobbs for scoring. Crabbe and Cobbs are the Pac-12’s highest-scoring duo, averaging 33.7 points per game; they’ve scored 49.7 percent of Cal’s points this season.
But Montgomery said his team plays its best when the supporting cast — David Kravish, Tyrone Wallace, Richard Solomon, Robert Thurman and Brandon Smith — chips in.
“When we trust other players and get other people involved, at the end of the day it makes [Crabbe’s] job easier,” he said.
Cal’s bench is also getting deeper with the return of sophomore guard Ricky Kreklow, who returned from a foot injury against Stanford.
“Ricky’s getting better, getting his legs under him a bit,” Montgomery said.
The Bears had expected the Missouri transfer to contribute in the backcourt this season, but he’s played in only six games because of injury.
Montgomery said it would be unreasonable to expect Kreklow to be a difference-maker this week.
“He’s obviously way out of game shape,” he said.