Things are going well for California, so well that coach Mike Montgomery is left to complain about a lack of close wins.
Well, "complain" probably is overstating the case. But Montgomery's team is alone in first place in the woebegone Pac-12 after Thursday night's 69-66 win at Washington. It was Cal's 10th victory in 12 games.
California led by 10 at halftime, but frittered that lead away and not until the Huskies' Darnell Gant missed a wide-open 3-point attempt with two seconds left was the victory secured.
"We haven't had a lot of close games," Montgomery said afterward. "Games we've lost, we've lost fairly substantially, other than San Diego State [one-point loss], so we haven't had a lot of situations like that."
Thing is, Cal hasn't lost all that often. The Golden Bears are 16-4 overall and 6-1 in league play heading into Saturday night's game at Washington State.
Because of the Pac-12's unbalanced schedule this season, Cal won't see either of the league's two Washington-based schools again in the regular season. That's the same reason the Golden Bears play Arizona only once – in Berkeley.
The league added two teams, Colorado and Utah, this season, but kept the 18-game conference schedule. When it was a 10-team league, an 18-game conference schedule meant a round-robin. But a 12-team league would require a round-robin schedule of 22 conference games, so that was scrapped.
Conceivably, Cal is helped because it doesn't have to venture to Tucson to play Arizona. Conceivably, Washington is helped because it doesn't have to make a trek to the Bay Area to play Cal or Stanford. Conceivably, Arizona is helped because it doesn't travel to Oregon or Oregon State. Oregon misses out on a trip to Los Angeles, but with the way UCLA and USC are playing, that might be to the Ducks' disadvantage.
Earlier this week, in his weekly news conference in Berkeley, Montgomery had a wry smile as he discussed the road schedule.
"Let's hypothesize and say that the California-Stanford road trip is a difficult road trip," he said. "So if you don't have to make that road trip, that might be to your advantage."
After Saturday's game at Washington State, Cal will play five of its next seven games at home, including visits from Stanford and Oregon. The Golden Bears are 13-0 at home this season, and the toughest remaining road game looks to be Stanford on March 4, the regular-season finale.
Cal was expected to be a leading contender for the league crown because of a solid backcourt made up of senior Jorge Gutierrez and sophomores Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs, a L.A. native who transferred from Minnesota. That trio has come through, combining to average 42.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, 11.3 assists and 2.9 steals. Each is shooting at least 45.8 percent from the field, as well.
The frontcourt hasn't been as productive, and was dealt a blow when part-time starter Richard Solomon was suspended for the rest of the season for academic issues Wednesday. Solomon wasn't much of an offensive threat, but he was a big body, a willing defender and the team's leading rebounder.
If Thursday is any indication, former walk-on Robert Thurman could be up to the task of replacing him. Thurman began his career at Division III Norwich, a private military college in Northfield, Vt. (Interesting fact from the school's media notes about the former military-school student: "Thurman is a talented singer and beat-boxer who writes his own rhymes and can freestyle rap.") Thurman isn't the most athletic guy around, but he set career-highs all over the place against the athletic Huskies: 21 minutes, 16 points, seven rebounds. He scored eight consecutive points during one stretch of the first half.
Montgomery told reporters the reason for Thurman's offensive success was simple: "Thurman catches the ball, Thurman finishes."
Montgomery wasn't as pleased with his team's ballhandling, which has not been a problem this season. Cal committed 17 turnovers, its second-most this season; it had 21 when it lost by 39 to Missouri in November.
"They got aggressive, and we didn't take care of the ball," Montgomery told reporters. "Some was lack of focus. And we got tired, there's no question. Guys played big minutes, and the pressure to win on the road got to us."
The lack of depth could be a problem; Cal isn't a deep team – look for Montgomery to have a seven-man rotation the rest of the way – but the Golden Bears still are off to their best league start under Montgomery, who is in his fourth season.
It's Cal's best start in conference play since they went 7-0 in 2002-03. Let's see Montgomery complain about that.
3 to watch
Arizona at Colorado, Saturday, 6 p.m., ROOT Sports Rocky Mountain/Fox Sports Arizona/Fox College Sports Central: Arizona is 2-1 on the road in conference play, but the victims were Utah and USC, the two worst teams in the league (and maybe the two worst teams in any of the Big Six leagues). Given the mediocrity of the league as a whole, "good" league road wins are going to be hard to come by; this would be a "good" road win.
Stanford at Washington, Saturday, 6 p.m., ROOT Sports Northwest/Comcast Sports Net Bay Area: The Cardinal lost to Washington State on Thursday and now face the Cougars' archrival. Washington is coming off a loss to California. This is the teams' only regular-season meeting.
California at Washington State, Saturday, 6 p.m., no TV: The Cougars beat Stanford on Thursday and now will be looking to muck up the works for the Golden Bears.
[Weekend Watch: Missouri, Baylor square off on the hardwood]
Oregon: Thursday night's victory over USC was Oregon's eighth win in its past 10 games. Last week, Oregon swept Arizona and Arizona State – just its second road sweep of those two in 34 years.
Oregon State Gs Jared Cunningham and Ahmad Starks: Both have scored in double figures in 11 consecutive games. In league play, they have combined to average 35.0 points, 5.4 assists and 4.9 steals.
Washington State G Faisal Aden: Aden, a senior who transferred in from junior college last season, scored a career-high 33 points in Thursday's victory over Stanford. His points came in 29 minutes of play. In his past two games, he is averaging 25.5 points and shooting 53.3 percent from the floor. In addition, he is 21-of-21 from the line in the past three games and has missed just four free throw attempts this season.
League teams on the road: Road teams are 11-27 in conference play, and three of those wins belong to Oregon.
USC: The Trojans lost at Oregon on Thursday to fall to 0-6 in the league; they are the only winless team in conference play. There was some good news: USC scored 62 points in the three-point loss, its fifth-highest point total of the season and the first time in seven games it had scored more than 53 and just the second time in that span it had scored more than 49.
Colorado G Carlon Brown: Brown is the Buffs' leading scorer, but he is struggling. He is averaging 13.1 points for the season, but has scored just 24 points in the past three games and hit just 30.4 of his shot attempts in those contests; he shot 11.1 percent from 3-point range in those three games.
[The Dagger: Will Syracuse don the colors of its hated rival?]
Good win last week
Oregon 59, Arizona 57. Road wins have been difficult to come by in league play, so this was important for the Ducks. They had lost two of their first three league games, but this finished off the sweep of the conference's Arizona schools.
Bad loss last week
Oregon 59, Arizona 57. For the same reason this was a big win for Oregon, it was a bad loss for the Wildcats. Teams that want to win the Pac-12 don't lose key league games at home.
The next win for Washington coach Lorenzo Romar will be notable for two reasons. First, he has 299 career wins overall; second, he has 99 career victories in conference play. He would be the 20th coach in league history to reach 100 wins in league play. Cal's Mike Montgomery (252 league wins) and UCLA's Ben Howland (100) already have 100 conference victories. The last time at least three coaches had 100 league wins at the same time? Try 1964, when Oregon State's Slats Gill had 276, UCLA's John Wooden had 171 and USC's Forrest Twogood had 121.
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