Bears travel to Stanford with title on the line

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BERKELEY -- And just like that, the California men's basketball team is back in the hunt for its second regular-season Pac-12 title in three years.
With the gutsy win by embattled UCLA over front-runner Washington, the Bears (23-7, 13-4 in Pac-12) once again control their own destiny, as they head into Maples Pavilion to take on rival Stanford in the final contest of the regular season.
"If I need to put things out there to motivate them, then we're kind of in the wrong business," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "We've got a game against our rival -- so to speak -- and it's our last regular-season game. If you want to go back and say, 'If we win this one, it's the most wins in the Pac-8, 10, 12 that the school's ever had, gives you 24 wins, I don't know where that stacks, but it's probably up there. It's just a lot of stuff, and, at the end of the day, we're trying to improve our resume for the NCAA Tournament."
The Pac-12 Tournament champion gets an automatic bid into the Big Dance, but odds are that the conference will receive - at the very least - two bids. With the down year in the league, though, nothing is certain.
"To have them feel like we're in, regardless -- another win doesn't hurt you -- there's enough stuff there without that," Montgomery said. "It's like falling in love. It's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all, they say, but it feels bad, you know, but you've got to put yourself out there, emotionally. There are people that don't do that, that won't let themselves put themselves in a position to be hurt. That's probably why I downplay with you guys (the media) all the time. I don't want every game to be the biggest game, so I have to feel worse if it doesn't get done. It's just easier to keep an even keel. We've got enough to play for."
The Cardinal (19-10, 9-8) had a schizophrenic road trip last week, pounding Colorado 74-50 but losing to lowly Utah, 58-57 on Feb. 25.
California vs. Stanford
WHEN: March 4, 2:30 PM
WHERE: Maples Pavilion, Stanford, Calif.
RADIO: NewsTalk 910AM (Roxy Bernstein and Todd McKim).
TV: Fox Sports Net/CSN Bay Area (Steve Physioc and Marques Johnson)
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: The Pac-12 regular-season title is on the line for the Bears after Washington's defeat at the hands of UCLA on Saturday. With a win, Cal can secure the top seed in the Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles, and reach 14 conference wins for the first time since the 1958-59 season. The Bears also need just one more win to match their total from the 2009-10 Pac-10 championship season. Cal has reached 14 conference wins twice (1956-57 and 1958-59). Head coach Mike Montgomery would become the second Bears skipper ever and the first since Pete Newell to record four straight seasons of 10 wins or more in conference play. Newell turned the trick five seasons in a row.
PODCAST: The Bear Republic Podcast previews both ends of the Battle By the Bay this week. Take a listen HERE.
WOMEN'S HOOPS: Lindsay Gottlieb and her Lady Bears will take on No. 2 Stanford at Haas Pavilion at 6 PM. Listen to Gottlieb's weekly presser HERE.
"It was kind of shocking," Montgomery said. "I just feel like Stanford's a good basketball team, and it's just unfortunate that they lost to Utah, in a time like this. It shows that anything can happen in this conference -- in any conference, basically -- but I know Stanford's just like Colorado: they lost to us last time, and Stanford just lost to Utah, so they're off a loss and I'm pretty sure they're going to be pumped up for this game. It's at their place, it's another senior night for their players, so I'm pretty sure they're looking forward to it."
The Bears split their last road trip in the other direction, downing the Utes 60-46 and then falling to the Buffaloes, 70-57, with senior guard Jorge Gutierrez going 0-for-7 from the floor and finishing with no points.
"Honestly, I don't even know why we didn't have the energy that we should have brought," said sophomore wing Allen Crabbe, who shot 6-of-13 from the field and scored 16 points. "I just feel like Colorado was just ready for that game. Earlier in the season, we had beaten them here, and it was a close one -- they almost had us here -- so I'm pretty sure they were just feeling pumped up and they had a little extra energy that game. Most importantly, it was their senior night, and the seniors wanted to go out with a win. They just brought extra energy and we didn't."
Stanford will be hosting its senior night on Sunday, saying goodbye to Andrew Zimmermann, Jack Trotter and Josh Owens, and there will be plenty of emotion at what is expected to be a sold-out Maples Pavilion.
"We've played them before and we know they're a good defensive team," said senior Cal power forward Harper Kamp, who is scoring 12.6 per game in conference play after scoring 9.0 per contest in non-conference play. "They're just really solid all around. They've got some good weapons on offense. Guys are playing well, and I know our coaches will have us prepared. We've just got to come out and play like we know how to play -- play hard and play like we didn't last game."
The Cardinal are third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, holding opposing teams to 62.1 points per game, and are fourth overall in field goal percentage defense (41.6 percent). Stanford is particularly troublesome defending the three, holding opponents to 33.2 percent from beyond the arc. The Bears are the fourth-best three-shooting team in the conference, shooting 37.1 percent from long distance.
While Kamp and freshman Cardinal guard Chasson Randle have upped their scoring production during the conference schedule -- Randle going from scoring 11.75 in nonconference play to 13.8 against the Pac-12 -- Gutierrez and Crabbe have fallen off a bit.
Gutierrez scored 13.75 points per game before league play, but is averaging 12.5 against the Pac-12. Before conference play began this season, Crabbe was scoring 15.8 points per game. Since then, he's averaging 14.8. Before Pac-12 play started, Crabbe was hitting 45 percent of three-pointers. In conference play, he's hit 37 of 97 (38.1 percent).
"We're just trying to build that energy up that we need for Stanford and really focus in on that," Crabbe said.
Some of that energy may very well come from the Bears' two first-year contributors in sophomore transfer Justin Cobbs and true freshman David Kravish.
Kravish leads the conference in shooting during Pac-12 play with a 62.1 percent mark, while Owens is third with 57.9 and Kamp is fourth with 57.7. Kravish ranks 15th in the conference in rebounding (5.7 rpg) and is eighth in blocked shots (1.2 bpg).
Cobbs averaged 4.5 assists before league play, but is dishing out 5.4 helpers per game in conference. Cobbs ranks 12th in the Pac-12 in overall scoring (13.0 ppg), second in assists (5.0), fourth in free throw percentage (81.5), 13th in steals (1.2 spg) and first in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5).
The battle of the boards could prove to be a decisive front, as it was last time the two teams met at Haas Pavilion, when the Bears out-boarded the Cardinal 41-31 in a 69-59 win.
Stanford pulls down 37.3 rebounds per game - second in the conference -- while holding opposing teams to 31.3 -- fourth in the Pac-12. Cal tallies 34.8 boards per contest (fifth) and holds opponents to 30.5 (second).
With extra time off this week to rest and recover from their high-altitude trip, Kamp and the Bears will be a bit more fresh come Sunday. Kamp, for his part, has upped his rebounding average from 4.15 per game before conference play to 5.0 against the Pac-12.
"This is a long week for us. Plenty of time to recover. Plenty of time to take care of our bodies," Kamp said. "I know my body, as a whole, is feeling pretty good. I'm pretty rested, although I have a little less class than most guys. I have been through it for four years now, and it can get a little tiring, mentally, to go through that."
If Kamp has anything to do with it, Cal won't come out as flat as it did in Boulder.
"By the time you get to the game, you have enough adrenaline that none of that stuff really matters. You should have enough heart to play through that," he said. "We have done that in the past, and we didn't do that on Sunday."