Bears can't afford to look back

After losing all three games against top-tier non-conference opposition, California now has a chance to work through its issues before the start of Pac-12 play.

BERKELEY, Calif. – California came out of their toughest three-game non-conference stretch at Wisconsin and against UNLV and Creighton – arguably the most taxing run of the entire regular season – without a win, with varying degrees of disappointment, and using three colloquialisms to describe what might have been.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

There was a complete no-show in Madison, the meltdown at the free-throw line and on the defensive glass against the Rebels, and junior guard Allen Crabbe's career-worst shooting performance against the BlueJays.

If any one of those games had come out differently, the Golden Bears (6-3) would have had a resume-defining win to set them apart in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Instead, they pivot to a stretch of three home games, starting with UC Santa Barbara on Tuesday (8 p.m., Pac-12 Network), where a loss would cripple aspirations of an at-large bid come March.

Not that Cal can think about it in those terms, mind you, not with significant work to do on both ends of the ball. Head coach Mike Montgomery acknowledged that reality Saturday night after the 74-64 loss to Creighton.

"We're not good enough yet," Montgomery said. "These are good teams. I told the team I want to know what it is we can do better, what can I do better to help you."

On offense, that means establishing scoring options other that Crabbe and redshirt junior guard Justin Cobbs. The backcourt duo is averaging 38.8 of the team's 71.4 points per game, but more troubling is how the rest of the roster defers to them.

Against Creighton, Cobbs and a visibly off Crabbe combined to take 43 shots. Montgomery blamed both a lack of ball movement and lack of assertiveness from teammates to make things happen when plays broke down, instead relying on Crabbe to bail them out.

"We have kind of got to get over the idea that he's the only guy that can score," Montgomery said. "We've got to find other people. We've got to get other people involved. We've got to establish a low post game. We're going to just have to play the game and not play the play that says we're supposed to get this shot."

That responsibility presumably falls to forwards Richard Solomon, David Kravish, and Robert Thurman. But while Solomon has established himself as a reliable third-option during the DirecTV Classic, averaging 12 points per game in Anaheim, and continued that momentum against UNLV and Creighton, Kravish and Thurman have not stepped up.

Montgomery has openly considered the possibility of a four-guard lineup, an option that seems more and more possible with the progression of freshman Tyrone Wallace and return of redshirt sophomore Ricky Kreklow after missing five games with a sore right foot.

On defense, the lingering inability to protect the defensive glass went away, for one game anyway. Creighton had just six offensive rebounds and three second-chance points, but made up for it with a barrage of wide-open second-half three-pointers to exploit slow rotations and recovery.

That all raises the question: how good can Cal be when, in spite of all those issues, it can still push top 20 opposition to the limit?

With no school and two weeks to tweak and improve before the start of Pac-12 play, that's the question they want to answer.

Not what might have been.

Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.


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