BERKELEY -- California's 85-53 victory over visiting SWAC opponent Prairie View A&M was anything but unexpected. When the home team runs a buy-one-get-one-free promotion for a men's basketball game, everyone is supposed to know that it's going to be a stinker.
While the Bears easily danced to a win against the overmatched Panthers, coach Mike Montgomery has no illusions about who and what his team is.
"We're probably middle of the pack right now," Montgomery said, when asked where his team rates in the Pac-12 right now -- and he couldn't be more right.
Even though Cal finished comfortably in the lead Saturday, the Bears inexplicably let Prairie View A&M hang around for approximately 12 minutes. Against the 5-7 Panthers, that is far too long for a Pac-12 team that hopes to compete for a conference title this season.
After starting the season with six straight victories, the Bears were beaten up in Wisconsin, heartbroken against No. 18 UNLV, and manhandled by No. 13 Creighton.
Those losses may come back to bite this 8-3 Cal team who, after facing Harvard for a non-conference finale, will have to take on a much-improved Pac-12 that boasts No. 5 Arizona, soon-to be-ranked Oregon, and nine other tough teams -- eight of which hold records of 7-4 or better.
"We can get the ball better on the defensive side," said junior swingman Allen Crabbe. "I notice that we give up offensive rebounds a lot, and I'm not going to lie, I have to focus on that too."
The Bears are averaging 12.1 offensive rebounds per contest and 40.8 boards a game, but their opponents aren't far behind averaging 11.5 and 33.2 rebounds respectively.
In conference play, those numbers would likely be acceptable, but when you consider that these numbers have come mostly against opponents that are lean on talent and short on height, those stats are downright worrisome for Montgomery and his crew.
So far this season, Cal is also losing the turnover battle with their opponents, 151 to 126. Saturday, the Bears turned the ball over 18 times -- eclipsing their season average of 13.7 turnovers a game. This is another area of concern that Montgomery continues to emphasize when naming his ‘needs' for improvement.
"We had 18 assists," said Montgomery about the game against Prairie View A&M. "We also had  turnovers, but some of them came late. We got a little careless with the ball."
Forgetting the numbers for a moment, consider that the Bears' uneven play against both the Runnin' Rebels and the Bluejays was what led to their losses. Against UNLV, a mental lapse on defense allowed a buzzer-beating put-back. Against Creighton, Cal shot a miserable 34.6 percent from the field and a hopeless 53.8 percent from the charity stripe. It also didn't help that the Bears had 22 personal fouls and four Cal players fouled out of the game.
Simply put, the Bears could have -- and should have -- beaten both ranked opponents they faced this season ... but they didn't. And that simple fact should tell you that this team can be pretty good -- as long as it continues to improve and stop being its own worst enemy.
Montgomery and his players realize this.
"We tend to have big leads and we kind of take off plays on the defensive side of the ball, which isn't good," admitted Crabbe.
Crabbe may have higher expectations for himself and his team, as many great players usually do, but his statement is difficult to dispute when you consider that Cal has held opponents to less than 60 points only four times this season -- Georgia Tech, Pacific, UC Santa Barbara and Prairie View A&M.
According to Montgomery, there is room to improve on offense as well.
"We tend to leave people with the ball stranded a little bit," he said. "We do it to Robert Thurman. He gets it on the baseline and everybody runs away instead of coming to the ball. That's something we need to get better at."
While it could just be nitpicking of a team that has taken care of business more times than not, each of these issues have been exploited by opponents at least once this season, and it has led to the Bears looking like Prairie View did on Saturday, at times.
Despite the team's troubles, there is much to be satisfied with so far this season. Freshman guard Tyrone Wallace continues to improve, Ricky Kreklow has solidified himself as a gamer, when healthy -- though he was relegated to street clothes on Saturday -- and other supporting players are contributing with moderate success when given the chance.
This roster, while raw in many areas, has still been able to compete with top teams and has beaten the lesser competition, which can be cause for optimism, albeit cautious.
"We certainly have the ability to finish toward the top [of the conference]," Montgomery said. "And that's our goal."
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