Justin Cobbs sinks a game-winning shot to beat Oregon (USA Today Sports Images)Overshadowed by all the chatter about Mike Montgomery's sideline conduct this week is the other reason to pay attention to Cal besides the shove heard around the world.
Quietly, the Bears are in the midst of a very unlikely and impressive turnaround.
Guard Justin Cobbs sank a game-winning 18-foot jump shot in the final second Thursday night as Cal won 48-46 at Pac-12-leading Oregon for its 11th straight victory against the Ducks. As a result, the Bears (17-9, 9-5) are improbably just a game out of first place in the Pac-12 and in contention to make the NCAA tournament thanks to six wins in their past seven games.
It's difficult to believe Cal would probably make the field of 68 if Selection Sunday were this weekend because of how far from NCAA tournament contention the Bears were just a few weeks ago.
Once 3-4 in league play, 11-8 overall and lacking any marquee wins, Cal seemed as though it would be lucky to make the NIT in mid-January. Since then the Bears have swept a pair of games against Oregon, upset Arizona in Tucson and beaten UCLA and USC in Berkeley, giving them four RPI top-50 wins with a chance for one more at home against Colorado on March 2.
The key to Cal's latest win was its defense.
Despite getting bludgeoned on the offensive glass, committing 16 turnovers and sinking only one 3-pointer, the Bears still managed to hand Oregon a rare home loss by holding the Ducks offense in check. Oregon shot just 27.6 percent from the field and 2 of 15 from 3-point range.
The absence of point guard Dominic Artis due to injury continues to hurt Oregon's outside shooting, transition attack and ability to take care of the ball. Though the Ducks kept their turnovers to a mere 10 on Thursday, Artis' replacement, Jonathan Loyd, missed all six shots he attempted in 35 minutes, demonstrating yet again that he is better suited for a reserve role.
Credit Cal for taking advantage and earning a win that boosts its stock. Now the Bears have gone from a team that wasn't even on the fringes of the bubble picture in mid-January to one that's on the verge of its a fourth NCAA tournament appearance in five years.