Bears kick off three-game road stretch to finish Pac-12 play

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California (22-6, 12-3) vs. Utah (5-21, 2-12)
WHEN: Feb. 23, 6:00 p.m., PT
WHERE: Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City, Utah
RADIO: NewsTalk 910AM (Roxy Bernstein and Todd McKim).
TV: None
VIDEO: Around the Pac-12: David Bagga Breaks Down the Pac-12
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: The race for the Pac-12 regular season title is coming down to its home stretch, and Cal has three straight games on the road, starting with Utah. The Bears are tied for first with Washington with identical 12-3 conference records, and while the Huskies are idle on Thursday, they do face off against rival Washington State (14-13, 6-9 in Pac-12) on Saturday. Colorado, Oregon and Arizona are all in striking distance, with the Buffs a half-game back of first and the Ducks and Wildcats two back. Before facing the Bears, Colorado squares off with Stanford at home on Thursday. Oregon plays Oregon State on Sunday, while Arizona plays USC at home on Thursday and UCLA at home on Saturday.
BERKELEY -- The last time California faced Utah, the Bears hammered the Utes in just about every way possible.
Apart from the final score -- 81-45 -- Cal out-rebounded Utah 32-22, shot 59.6 percent from the field to the Utes' 34.7 percent and scored 18 points off of turnovers to Utah's nine.
The Bears turned the ball over 10 times while dishing out 24 assists, while Utah coughed the ball up 18 times and only managed six turnovers on 17 field goals. In every way, Mike Montgomery's bunch out-classed that of his former protégé, Larry Krystkowiak.
This week's Pac-12 Player of the Week -- sophomore point guard Justin Cobbs -- shot 5-of-10 from the field and scored 14 points, to go along with 11 assists. This past week, Cobbs broke out for 28 points, eight assists, no turnovers and four steals against Oregon and went off for his first career double-double against Oregon State with a career-high 13 assists and 10 points.
"It's a blessing to be named Player of the Week," Cobbs said. "I played well this weekend. I passed the ball well, finished well, so I guess they decided I was Player of the Week."
This season, Cobbs has been a revelation at the one, ranking 11th in the league in scoring (13.2 ppg), 14th in field goal percentage (50.2), second in assists (5.0 apg), eighth in free-throw percentage (80.9), 15th in steals (1.1 spg) and first in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5).
"I'm a lot more confident," said Cobbs. "I'm kind of picking spots when to be aggressive, when not to be aggressive. Against Oregon State, we had guys going and I didn't need to score the ball, but I can just look at my teammates, and those are the times when the assist numbers go up. Guys are getting it going, knocking down shots. I'm surrounded by great guys.
Cobbs' 13 assists against the Beavers were the most by a Cal player since future NBA Hall-of-Famer Jason Kidd dished out 13 in 1994.
"To be up there with him, that's an honor," Cobbs said. "I've just got to keep working, keep pushing."
Now, Cobbs and the Bears (22-6, 12-3 in Pac-12) head up to Salt Lake City, all of 4,226 feet above sea-level, to a hostile Jon M. Huntsman Center.
"I have never been to Colorado or Utah," Cobbs said of this weekend's destinations. "I've never been there, so I don't know what to expect. I heard it's harder to breathe. Richard [Solomon] and Allen [Crabbe] went down there for the USA trials, and I think they were fine. They got a little winded, but we're going up there a day before to get used to things. I think we'll be fine."
Since the loss to Cal (22-6, 12-3 in Pac-12) on Jan. 14, the Utes have gone 1-8, but going deeper into the numbers, Utah (5-21, 2-12) has improved over its first season in the Pac-12.
After a -15.35 point differential over their first 17 games, the Utes have averaged just 0.56 points less than their opponents over the past eight contests, and after falling to rival Colorado 73-33 on Dec. 31, Utah pushed the Buffaloes last week and fell just 55-48 in Salt Lake City.
"I think Larry's done a good job. They just had so many issues early on, that it was just one thing after another, and I think they have a lineup now that the kids know, this is it: this is what we have," Montgomery said during his weekly press conference. "They're playing better together, and I'm sure they're having more fun together. Last time we played them, they had the guard who was a good player, but everything kind of started and finished with him, so a lot of guys were standing around and he didn't really know what they could do. Now, these other kids are having to play, and they're putting up some numbers and are more capable, perhaps, than people would have thought. They're a better team than they were."
That guard -- senior Josh Watkins -- scored a team-high 15 points against the Bears last time out, and averaged 15.6 points in 16 games before being dismissed from the team shortly thereafter.
"I haven't seen them play, but I saw the score the other day when they played Colorado," Cobbs said. "They played them pretty tough at their place, and I think Colorado only won by single digits, so that shows that they're playing good basketball right now, and the score was low. They're keeping the score down, and they're playing good basketball right now."
In Watkins's stead, freshman guard Kareem Storey has had to step up to fill the void. In the past five games, Storey has averaged 7.2 points and 5.6 assists per game. Storey is 13th in the league in assists, averaging 3.2 on the season.
"I remember that they're a physical team," Cobbs said. "They try to slow the game down a little bit with a little slower-pace game. They were just trying to run the clock a little bit, trying to make the game a little slower."
Utah's front line is anchored by 6-foot-10 junior Jason Washburn, who leads the Utes in most stasticial categories. Washburn averages 10.8 points (29th in the Pac-12), 6.3 boards (eighth), 1.1 blocks (ninth) and 4.5 defensive rebounds per game (eighth).
Washburn is the lone Ute in the conference's top 30 scoring leaders, while the Bears boast four in Allen Crabbe (fifth, 15.6), Jorge Gutierrez (ninth, 13.6), Justin Cobbs (11th, 13.2) and Harper Kamp (28th, 10.8).
"They've got a couple bigs that are pretty decent," said Cal true freshman David Kravish. "One of them is actually doing pretty well. I know that they were struggling a bit, early in the season, but they're playing everybody close. They get after it and they play hard. Any team that plays hard has a chance."
Kravish -- who ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in blocked shots (31 total, 1.1 per game) and 16th in rebounds (5.7 rpg) -- played 18 minutes against the Utes in their previous engagement, pulling down just two boards and scoring two points. Like Cobbs, this will be his first time playing at altitude.
"On my visit to Colorado, my junior year," Kravish recalled, "you think it's going to be OK, and then, you're like, 'Wait, I'm starting to feel it a little bit,' but we've got those few days to get adjusted, so I think we're going to be good. It's not to the point where you're just going to pass out on the court or anything. You don't need oxygen tanks, but there's a little bit of a difference. It doesn't take long to get used to it, though. At first, you feel it, but as you get going, you stop noticing it. At least, that's what it is for me."
Along with Cobbs, Kravish is coming off one of his best stretches of basketball in his first collegiate campaign. Against Oregon, the 6-foot-9, 210-pounder scored 13 points and pulled down a game-high eight rebounds in 26 minutes. Against Oregon State, Kravish scored a game-high 17 points and pulled down seven boards.
"I didn't really think about it, but I know my parents thought they were [my best games], whatever that means," Kravish smiled. "For me, I try not to think about it, too much, because I over-analyze everything. If I think too hard about it, then I'll just get myself into a bad place, so I just take each thing as it comes."
Kravish's parents will be in attendance on Sunday, when the Bears take on Colorado, but that's not even on his mind. With three games left in the regular season, Cal is tied with the Huskies for first place in the conference. Every game matters. Even one against a team the Bears blasted at home. Even in the midst of a five-game winning streak.
"We never talk about it, but after a loss, you can feel everybody's just chomping at the bit to get back on track, so I feel like, especially with how we're so close to the end of the season, nobody wants to give it up. You can feel that energy, even though we haven't had a loss. Everybody really wants it," Kravish said. "Coach Montgomery is not going to let us overlook anybody, especially at this point. It's so close to the end, and it's such a close race. There's four or five teams that are still in the running, and Coach isn't going to let us overlook it. Harper and Jorge aren't going to let us overlook it. With how big of a thing it would be to win the conference, I don't think anybody really wants to overlook or take the chance of losing a game."
That said, the Utes are 10th or worse in the conference in scoring (11th, 56.2 ppg), scoring defense (10th, 70.0 ppg), scoring margin (12th, -13.8), field goal defense (12th, 47.4 percent), field goal percentage (11th, 40.7), three-point defense (12th, 40.2 percent), rebounding (11th, 28.8 rpg), rebounding margin, (11th, -5.2), blocked shots (11th, 2.27 bpg), assists (11th, 10.65 apg), steals (11th, 5.00 spg), turnover margin (11th, -2.73) and assist-to-turnover ratio (11th, 0.78).
The Bears are second in scoring defense (61.0 ppg), third in scoring offense (72.9 ppg) and three-point field goal defense (32.5 percent), and first in scoring margin (+12), free-throw percentage (75.2), field goal percentage (48.7), three-point field goal percentage (38.0), rebounding defense (allowing 30.1 per game), assists (16.43 apg) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.36). Cal also boasts road wins in Eugene, Los Angeles and Seattle, making the road feel a bit more comfortable than it should.
"You want to try to think that, but at the same time, you lose a little bit of focus on the road, and anything can happen," Cobbs said. "I think we do have a little more confidence on the road, knowing that we beat a couple great teams on the road, and it's just staying at it, being aggressive on defense and executing on offense."