And so it all comes down to this: the final three games of the regular season. Six Pac-10 teams are still alive in the race for the conference title, with the Cal basketball team clinging to a half-game lead over Arizona State. The Bears will face the Sun Devils on Saturday, but first, they have some business to settle with Arizona tonight at 6 p.m. at Haas Pavilion in a game that will be televised nationally on ESPN.
"You address it, but it doesn't become the overriding thing," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery about the pressure not only of being on national television, but also the potential for the Bears' first conference championship in 50 years.
"We have to win at home. If we'd have played these games in early January, they'd have had the same significance. The thing that's probably still sticking in our craw a little bit is that UCLA home loss that could be the game that comes back and bites you a little bit," Montgomery said. "Home games are critical, and now they're more critical because you're down to the last three games. Sure you address it. It's just a matter of finishing the job at home. But you also try to talk about us and what we need to do and how we have to play rather than become overly-consumed."
On Jan. 31 in Tuscon, Ariz., the Wildcats (13-13, 7-7 in Pac-10) bested Cal 76-72 thanks, in large part, to Arizona's lone senior, 5-foot-10, 180-pound Nic Wise. The guard out of Houston, Tex., carved the Bears (18-9, 10-5) for 30 points on 8-of-16 shooting, including 5-of-8 from beyond the arc. Wise excelled at making plays off of the pick-and-roll, which Cal was unable to defend.
"We didn't handle pick-and-rolls pretty well, so we're going to have to contain him," Montgomery said. "You can't let anybody get big numbers against you. He's a veteran. He's a senior. He's playing great."
In this, the 80th all-time meeting between the Bears and Wildcats, Cal will have to contend with the fact that Wise tends to turn it on when it counts, outscoring the Bears 7-3 in the final 53 seconds of the Arizona win in Tucson to provide the winning margin.
"Because he's capable of putting big numbers up, what you don't want him to do is get big numbers and then also make his teammates better, because that's what he's capable of doing," Montgomery said. "He's really good off pick-and-rolls, he's split it a number of times. He got to the basket, he dropped off, kicked it to shooters, he did a great job. So, we just have to do a better job than we did last time on him."
Wise's teammates provide some interesting challenges of their own. Freshman forward Kevin Parrom is coming off a career-high 10 boards against Arizona State on Sunday, and in Pac-10 play, he is averaging 4.7 rebounds per game, ranking second on the team.
Down low, the hobbled Markhuri Sanders-Frison will have to contend with 6-foot-8, 235-pound freshman Derrick Williams, who leads the team with an average of 15.4 points per game with a staggering 58.7 shooting percentage. He leads the team with 6.8 boards per game and is a force on the defensive glass, pulling down a team-high 125 defensive rebounds.
"He's got a real good sense of where he is, he finishes around the basket, he's not an overly-big center, but he's really good around the basket," Montgomery said of Williams. "He can face you up a little bit and drive by you. He does a real good job off of pick-and-rolls, and they do a good job at finding him and making sure he gets low-post touches. He's a go-to guy in the low post and he's capable of passing out of it, yet he's also capable of creating some foul issues."
A key for the Bears will be to clean up down low and make the best of second-chance opportunities.
"They run good motion, they're young in some ways and they've got a very good idea of what they're doing," Montgomery said. "I think Parrom does a good job at providing defensive presence and some toughness. Obviously, Williams is a really good, strong post guy, and then they've got the two shooters, Fogg and Horne."
6-foot-7 junior forward Jamelle Horne and 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Kyle Fogg are deadly from distance, placing first and second on the team, respectively, in shooting percentage from three-point-land, sinking 42.2% and 40.2%.
One of the biggest advantages that the Wildcats have over the Bears is youth and depth. While perhaps earlier in the season, youth may have hurt Arizona on the road, this late in the year, young, healthy players may be a game-changer against a senior-laden and injury-riddled Cal squad.
With Sanders-Frison and senior guard Patrick Christopher still nursing tender backs and sophomore forward Omondi Amoke reduced to a role off the bench because of a bruised shoulder, just getting enough healthy bodies on the floor during practice has been a challenge.
"I check the roster every time I go out there for practice and see what we got. It's kind of a day-to-day thing," Montgomery said. "We haul the whole weight room out there so we can get some guys on bikes. We've just had a really tough time with health, and it's affected our practices. Patrick didn't practice last week, and I think some of the guys have gotten a little bit out of shape because we haven't been able to get up and down in practices as much."
A lack of energy late hurt the Bears when last they faced the Wildcats, and Mongtomery admitted that he was very disappointed with the lack of consistent effort during the road trip to the desert.
"We didn't start well, either; we were tired right from the get-go," Montgomery said. "We had a very, very strong effort against Arizona State, hung around for a couple extra days, and the fact that we're not able to have the depth to push every day in practice, and so forth has probably hurt us."