For Bears, path to title runs through Boulder

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California (23-6, 13-3) vs. Colorado (18-9, 10-5)
WHEN: Feb. 26, 2:30 p.m., PT
WHERE: Coors Events Center, Boulder, Colo.
RADIO: NewsTalk 910AM (Roxy Bernstein and Todd McKim).
TV: Fox Sports Net/CSN Bay Area (Joel Myers and Reggie Theus)
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: With Washington's narrow win over Washington State on Saturday, the race for the Pac-12 regular season title is now as tight as ever.
The Bears lead the Huskies by just half a game in the standings, and need a win going into the season finale against rival Stanford at Maples Pavilion to ensure their second regular-season crown in three seasons, a feat last accomplished by Cal teams during a run of four straight from 1956-60 under legendary head coach Pete Newell.
Senior guard Jorge Gutierrez had 12 points and five assists against Utah to become just the second Bear to record 1,000 points, 400 rebounds, and 400 assists in his career. The other player is Kevin Johnson (1984-87). His 13.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.2 apg, and 1.2 spg are sure to put him in the discussion for the conference's Player of the Year award before all is said and done.
BERKELEY -- Washington State gave rival Washington all it could handle on Saturday, but a 17-for-32 night from the free throw line by the Cougars meant that the Huskies were able to remain just a half game back of California in the Pac-12 standings, making the Bears' afternoon tip against Colorado that much more crucial.
"We have separated ourselves a little bit from that one point there, where there were seven [teams] that were viable, and now, we're down to probably five, but maybe less than that, that are real realistic," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "They know what their job is, and for us, our margin of error is not appreciable. We've got to have certain people perform and we've got to play good defense, or we're going to have a tough time."
In Thursday's tilt against Utah, reigning conference Player of the Week Justin Cobbs and sophomore wing Allen Crabbe combined to shoot just 2-for-12 for eight points. Thanks to a 17-point night from senior Harper Kamp, a 12-point night from Jorge Gutierrez and 11 points from freshman David Kravish, though, the Bears were able to come away from Salt Lake City with a 60-46 win. A poor shooting night -- and Thursday was just that, with Cal hitting just 40.4 percent of shots from the field -- won't hold up against the Buffaloes. Last time against Colorado, the Bears shot 35.1 percent from the field, with Crabbe going 2-for-9 and Gutierrez going 2-for-17, as the Buffaloes out-rebounded Cal 44-37.
"They have a great defensive scheme," Cobbs said. "Whatever they were doing, it was effective, and we've been working on little things to counter what they were doing against us, and what they're trying to take away. They had a great defensive scheme. A lot of our offense, they scouted really well, and they took some things away. This time around, we'll be ready for what they have to offer."
The only thing that saved the Bears was a 31.9-percent shooting night from the Buffaloes and a 1-for-5 night from freshman Spencer Dinwiddie, who has averaged 10.5 points per game this season.
"They're good. Shooting the ball like we shot it, we probably shouldn't have won, but we managed to hang in there, so they're a good defensive team," Montgomery said. "They know what they're doing. They know what they're trying to take away. I can't believe that everything was them. I think part of it was just us, not getting the ball in the hole. They're a good team. They're a good defensive team. They're mature, they're physical, they know how to play."
First-year head coach Tad Boyle's squad is fourth in the league in scoring defense (62.3 points per game) and tops the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 39.9 percent from the field.
"They definitely defend well. He's done a great job defensively," Montgomery said. "They've got a fairly veteran team, and the Australian guard is tough-minded, defends, the inside guy (Austin Dufault) is a senior, as well. He knows how to play the post. Then, they've got some offensive people. Dinwiddie has been really good for them, which has been -- I don't know how much of a surprise, but he's had a very solid year. Their power forward is a great rebounder, so they've got a good, solid basketball team."
Australian guard Nate Tomlinson is quick with the assists, averaging 3.26 per game -- 11th-most in the Pac-12 -- and ranking sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6). Dufault is tied with teammate Andre Roberson for 25th in the conference in scoring (11.1 ppg), while Roberson leads the league in rebounding with 11.3 per game.
The Bears have a crack rebounder of their own in Kravish, who ranks 15th in the conference on the boards (5.7 rpg). In the past four games, though, Kravish has come into his own, averaging 6.75 boards, 12.5 points and 1.75 blocks per game.
"Coming in, I didn't really expect any of this," Kravish said. "It's kind of a surprise. I always try to work hard, so I don't really know. It's a great opportunity and I'm just glad I was able to take advantage of it."
Altitude will be a factor for Kravish and the rest of the Bears, as will the Buffaloes' raucous home crowd, in front of which they are 11-2.
"Everybody seems to play better at home than they do on the road, although, I thought Oregon had a great weekend on the road," Montgomery said. "That seems to go without saying. Washington's been better at home, typically, but they're more comfortable, they're drawing good crowds now. It's a longer trip than normal for us, in terms of getting there. He's done a nice job of building that thing and getting a home-court advantage. They've not always drawn well, and now they are."
In Cal's second-round National Invitation Tournament contest in Boulder last year, with Gutierrez and then-senior Markhuri Sanders-Frison felled by injury, Colorado rolled to an 89-72 win. Kravish, though, is the only regular contributor to not have been on that team, so the Bears' collective experience could play a factor, particularly at 5,430 feet.
"It is," Montgomery said. "It's probably more mental, initially, than it is physical. You'll go through your first couple ... there's a period of time when you'll just be very tired, and then you'll get through that. Once you get through that, it pretty much goes away."
The last time the Buffaloes tipped off at home, though, they fell hard to the 19-9 Cardinal by the score of 74-50.
"All these games are must-win, if we want to win that championship," Cobbs said. "We can't look past anything. Every game's a must-have."