Head coach Mike Montgomery is in his fourth season with California and is poised to add his second Pac-12 championship during his tenure to his resume. The Golden Bears last won the conference in 2009-10, and while they were projected to be the second best team in the Pac-12, UCLA's disappointing season has Montgomery's team sharing the driver's seat with UW halfway with nine conference games remaining.
Things haven't gone exactly as planned though for California as it lost its starting center and rebounder Richard Solomon 13 games into the season to academic issues. At the time he was declared ineligible, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound sophomore was one of the better big men in the conference and was averaging six points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Even without Solomon, the Golden Bears haven't skipped a beat, as three of its five losses came in the preseason against teams ranked in the top 25 with the other two defeats coming at the hands of Oregon State and Washington State.
Cal is winners of five of its last six and will be looking to avenge its loss last season at Haas when Lamont Jones and Kevin Parrom carried the Wildcats to a thrilling game that ended with a score of 107-105 in triple overtime.
During his career at Arizona, Derrick Williams set the trend of winning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year before winning Pac-10 Player of the year and it appears that California guard Allen Crabbe has his eyes set on the same achievement.
The 6-foot-6, 205-pound sophomore is the fourth best scorer in the conference at 15.8 points per game. With Solomon out, Crabbe has stepped up as California's best rebounder with 6.1 boards per contest and is having a solid campaign following his earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 honors a year ago.
Crabbe is one of the best shooters in the conference, as he's the Pac-12's third best three-point shooter at 43.6 percent from beyond the arc. He's shooting 45 percent overall and 83 percent from the free throw line, making him perhaps the conference's best all-around shooter.
In two career games against UA, Crabbe is averaging 22 points and seven rebounds and despite not having explosive athleticism, he's able to get himself open looks due to his quick trigger and unlimited range. He'll be a tough matchup for an undersized Arizona team, which makes the loss of Kevin Parrom even more painful.
California has one of the Pac-12's most relentless defenders in Jorge Gutierrez, who in his four year career has developed into an effective player offensively as well. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound senior, who is coming off of All-Pac-10 honors a year ago, is second on the team and tenth in the conference with a scoring average of 14.1 points on 46.1 percent shooting per outing.
Gutierrez is also a good distributor and is sixth in the Pac-12 with an average of 4.2 assists in 31.3 minutes per game. In his career against Arizona he's averaging just 8.3 points per contest, but he'll likely eclipse that mark early with how much attention UA is likely to give Crabbe.
The Wildcats will face their second Minnesota transfer in California point guard Justin Cobb, whose 4.7 assists per outing rank second in the Pac-12. While the 6-foot-2, 195-pound sophomore has been effective as a distributor in drive and kick situations, he's also hitting 49.5 percent of his shots when he takes it all the way to the rim on his way to a scoring average of 13 points per game.
Fresh off a game against the trio of Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten and C.J. Wilcox, Arizona will have no opportunity to stop and catch its breath against Crabbe, Gutierrez, and Cobbs. It's a trio that is capable of knocking down jump shots, getting easy buckets near the rim and most importantly posting big numbers on the score board. The players in the backcourt for UA need to learn their lesson from the game against UW to prevent California's three talented guards.
With the loss of Solomon to academic issues, 6-foot-9, 210-pound freshman David Kravish has been forced into the staring lineup and is the team's third leading rebounder at 5.2 boards in 23.9 minutes per outing. In addition, Kravish is leading the team with a 57.6 shooting percentage from the field on his way to 5.9 points per game.
As a junior, Harper Kamp was one of the more productive post players in the Pac-10 with an average of 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds, which led to his earning Second Team All-Pac-10 honors. The Mesa, Arizona native has regressed this season, as the 6-foot-8, 245-pound senior is putting up just 9.7 points and five rebounds per game.
Kamp is shooting a very efficient 54.6 percent from the field but with the emergence of Crabbe, Gutierrez and Cobbs has become the team's fourth scoring option. However, if UA does not give him his due diligence, Kamp is liable to exceed his season averages and post a big stat line.
The bench for California is not very productive, as it has three primary reserves that average less than 3.7 points per contest. The team's sixth man is 5-foot-11, 185-pound junior Brandon Smith, who had a productive sophomore season before being forced to the bench with Cobb's arrival. In 20.3 minutes per outing, Smith is averaging 3.7 points, but is shooting just 34.8 percent from the field.
Robert Thurman, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound junior, has seen his role increase with the dismissal of Solomon and for the season he's averaging 3.2 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. While those numbers are not impressive, his 16-point, seven rebound performance against Washington three games ago will help him in his effort to keep his minutes steady moving forward.
Appearing in 19 of the team's 22 games, 6-foot-3, 195 pound sophomore Emerson Murray is averaging just 1.9 points per contest and is called upon primarily for short spurts when the team's other guards have foul trouble or are in need of a quick breather.
We're going to find out exactly what Arizona is made of following its heart breaking loss to Washington in a game that will feature the conference's best team playing on its home floor. Haas Pavilion is hosting a "Gold Out" for Thursday night's game, adding even more intensity to an already difficult environment.
It can ill afford to get off to a slow start as the Golden Bears outscore their opponents by an average of 7.4 points in the first half of games. If the Wildcats start slow they're liable to fall behind early by a deficit that will be hard to overcome.
Arizona matches up pretty well with California, but the real key will be keeping Crabbe from having a big night scoring. How well the Wildcats bounce back will determine their character, but make no mistake about it, winning at Haas will be an accomplishment 14 teams this year have already failed to do.