They can grab and clutch with the best of them, muck up the game and make things generally unpleasant to watch. They did it during their season-defining seven-game winning streak. They did not do it during their two-game losing streak, falling in embarrassing fashion to Stanford in the regular-season finale with a chance to claim a share of the Pac-12 title and to Utah in the conference tournament.
Cal has to find – or fake – that physicality in its NCAA Tournament Round of 64 game with UNLV (4:27 p.m., TruTV) Thursday at HP Pavilion in San Jose because, as coach Mike Montgomery noted, March is the month where such aggression is the norm.
"It's just an adjustment you need to make," Montgomery said. "I guess the best way I can say it: you got to play through contact. Historically in the NCAA Tournament there has been more contact and you got to play through it."
That style doesn't exactly come easily given the disposition of Cal (20-11, 12-6 Pac-12), as demonstrated on Dec. 9 at Haas Pavilion against the Runnin' Rebels. Quintrell Thomas dropped in Anthony Marshall's missed shot with 1.2 seconds to play for a 76-75 win, benefiting from a 13-5 edge in offensive rebounds and 25 points and 13 rebounds from freshman forward Anthony Bennett.
The front line of UNLV (25-9, 10-6 Mountain West) will be even stronger in the rematch, as Mike Moser suffered a dislocated elbow less than five minutes into the first meeting and Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch was not yet eligible to play.
Birch was named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year after averaging three blocked shots per game in conference along with 5.7 rebounds. While Moser hasn't recaptured his pre-injury consistency, UNLV coach Dave Rice said his leadership has been incredibly valuable for an inexperienced team.
"When he got hurt, I wasn't sure he would play again for us this year and he has worked extremely hard in his rehab and actually came back sooner maybe than was anticipated," Rice said Monday at the Thomas & Mack Center. "He has played quality minutes for us, just hasn't played quite as many minutes, but he is a very important part of our team."
Their presence will demand a strong response from forwards David Kravish and Richard Solomon, especially on the defensive glass. Giving up offensive rebounds has been an issue for Cal the entire season. Another poor performance there could end the campaign.
"We're going to have to block off," Montgomery said. "That's not something we have been great at, particularly when those big physical guys come in to rebound the ball. And we're going to have to guard people at point of attack and you're talking about potential pros."
Describing UNLV as a team with a "pro mentality," favoring isolation play and mismatches that feature its talent and athleticism on offense, Montgomery will need his players to be locked in at all times.
That has not happened in these last two games. Kravish admitted that offensive struggles carried over to defense, as opposed to focusing on creating turnovers and stops that lead to easy points, as happened during their Pac-12 success.
"When other teams got on runs in those last two games, we got discouraged," Kravish said. "Maybe body language was bad, the attitude kind of fell off and with that our energy."
Cal has to match UNLV's intensity regardless. Find it or fake it, it is the only way to extend the season.
Said Montgomery: "There's no next game unless we earn the right for the next game so you got to lay it on the line here and approach it with that kind of sense of urgency."
Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.