Vegas Vanishing Act

Commentary: Whoever stepped on the court Thursday in Las Vegas may have looked like California, but their defense performances confirms they were not the genuine article.

LAS VEGAS – In a city filled with tribute acts and impersonators, there were nine guys wearing blue and gold jerseys doing a lousy imitation of California on Thursday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

They at least looked the part, unlike the street characters that clog up much of The Strip to pedestrian traffic, but they certainly were not the real Golden Bears. They were certainly not the team that ripped off a seven-game winning streak with ferocious defense. They were certainly not the team that led the Pac-12 in points allowed and field-goal percentage defense eight days earlier.

That team has disappeared, and it looks like they are never coming back. That team might as well be buried in a hole in the desert, the way they used to make problems disappear out here in the good old days.

Cal has somehow gone from the best defense in the conference, and with that status of the best team in the conference, to the worst in the span of two games. That was confirmed by an appallingly early exit in the conference tournament, losing to Utah in quarterfinals, 79-69 in overtime.

But it wasn't the fact they lost that was troubling. The young Utes have played close games all season long, finally breaking through with a sweep of the Oregon schools in the final weekend of the regular season. Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak has done good work to keep them invested and his early recruiting efforts are starting to pay off.

It was how Cal lost. For the majority of the game, apart from a 6:44 stretch early in the second half where Utah was held without a point, it could not get a stop when it mattered most. It could not get a stop early, allowing the two slivers of red-clad fans and their team to believe their Cinderella story could continue. It could not get a stop late, when the building had filled up with Oregon and Washington fans sensing the very real possibility of facing a 10-seed playing its third game in three nights in the semifinals Friday.

And by the time it got to overtime, it was more than clear – to Cal players, coaches and fans; Utah players, coaches and fans; and everyone else in attendance – that it could not get a stop. The damage had already been done when Jarred DuBois hit the game tying three-pointer with four seconds to play in regulation.

Cal coach Mike Montgomery said that in hindsight he should have called a timeout and told his team to foul before DuBois or anyone else could get off the shot. But his players had shown no inclination they could carry out that assignment, let alone know when to execute such a gambit successfully. In similar circumstances against Oregon State earlier this season, that very concern led him to rely on his defense and hope for the best.

In the back of his mind, Montgomery was probably thinking of the four-point play by Stanford that resulted in overtime Wednesday against Arizona State. Here it would have resulted in immediate defeat.

So David Kravish allowed DuBois to get as good a look as anyone could hope for in that situation. It swished through the rim at make it 59-all.

Overtime was a formality, with Utah scoring 20 points in the five additional minutes after scoring 32 in the first 20 minutes and 27 in the second 20 minutes.

The Cal that roared past UCLA, the Cal that swept Oregon, the Cal that defeated Arizona at the McKale Center never would have let that happen. Their defensive effort would have prevented DuBois from attempting that shot, kept him from hitting 8-of-13 shots for a team-high 21 points.

They would have denied DuBois the moment he thought about delivering that kind of performance. They would have forced turnovers to facilitate their offense, making Justin Cobbs (game-high 26 points and five rebounds) and Allen Crabbe (21 points) that much more effective. They would have made the defining plays.

But that Cal has vanished, replaced with one that allows 47.3 percent shooting and one that sees Crabbe miss a critical free throw to go ahead by two possessions with 28 seconds to play.

They disappeared before Stanford bombed these imposters for a season-worst 83 points. That was supposed to be the APB that led to the real Cal's return on this night. It didn't happen.

These imposters will receive an NCAA Tournament bid on Sunday and exit meekly next Thursday or Friday, wearing Cal jerseys.

But they aren't the team that got Cal in this position by winning seven in a row by playing impenetrable defense. They staged a Vegas-caliber disappearing act, seemingly never to return, and replaced by these unworthy imposters.

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


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