Title in sight, focus a concern Thursday

With California well-positioned in the Pac-12 title chase after winning five straight games, head coach Mike Montgomery is concerned that the Bears might look past Utah.

BERKELEY, Calif. – The goal of a Pac-12 title seemed downright impossible one month ago, before California ripped off seven wins in an eight-game stretch, taking four from conference leaders Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA.

Now it seems plausible, if not likely. The Golden Bears close out the regular season at home with a schedule that looks to be considerably easier than their challengers.

Redshirt junior guard Justin Cobbs has rediscovered his shooting touch, extending the streak of Pac-12 Player of the Week winners to three, following up junior guard Allen Crabbe's back-to-back honors.

Junior forward Richard Solomon has figured out his role, while freshman guard Tyrone Wallace bounced back from four poor offensive games to be the team's second-leading scorer at Oregon State.

There are better contributions from the bench, at least in minutes if not statistical production. Head coach Mike Montgomery wouldn't even rule out the possible return of redshirt sophomore guard Ricky Kreklow from a foot injury that has limited him to just five games.

All is well, so Montgomery can trust his team not to look past struggling Utah on Thursday (6 p.m., ESPNU) at Haas Pavilion, right?

"No, not comfortable at all," Montgomery said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. "Not comfortable with anything."

Montgomery cited last week's sweep at the Oregon schools as evidence.

"It's been a hard group the whole year getting them to focus," he said. "It was a huge win Thursday at Oregon, and I didn't think we had their full attention Saturday at Oregon State. We're never out of the woods."

That risk would seem to be even greater with the Utes (11-15, 3-11 Pac-12), who have improved during the season, while Cal (18-9, 10-5 Pac-12) might look ahead to Colorado and Stanford, the teams that cost them a conference championship last season.

In the last month alone, Utah defeated Colorado and Arizona State, along with losses to Oregon by nine points and Arizona by four. Cal held them off 62-57 in the first meeting in Salt Lake City, one of nine single-digit defeats for head coach Larry Krystkowiak.

"Utah is scary because they have played everybody tough. Every game is going to be tough," Montgomery said.

"Just couldn't finish, whether it be home or road. The first two games at Arizona and at Arizona State, they are one basket away. You win those two, it probably changes the whole complexion of their season."

Senior forward Robert Thurman says previous experience has taught him not to discount any opponent.

"At the beginning of the season, there were a few games we walked in and thought we were just going to beat them. It ended up not looking so pretty," Thurman said. "Right now I think we know how important these games are because we don't want a repeat of last year."

Besides bringing the right mentality, the biggest challenge on the court will be dealing with the multiple defenses Utah can employ, allowing a young team to rank in the middle of the conference in scoring and shooting percentage.

"Every time you see them, they are doing something new," Montgomery said. "They'll trap and they'll zone and they'll match up, they will do all kinds of things."

But with the goal of a title back in play, Cobbs is resolute that Cal will overcome any and all obstacles, be it psychological or physical against Utah, and afterwards.

"We just have to stay focused for one more week and one day," Cobbs said. "If we take care of our business, hopefully we can put ourselves in a great position to win the championship."

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


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