Cal closes out Pac-12 conference play with the "Mountain Trip" starting Thursday at Utah. What is at stake for the Bears and Utes is fourth place in the conference, which carries considerable significance.
The top four finishers get byes in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, which starts March 8 in Las Vegas. Finish fifth or lower and winning the tournament requires four games in four days. The extra day off makes a difference.
"It's important if you're trying to win the conference tournament," Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said. "Not that it's impossible if you don't get it (the bye), but when you're talking fresh legs and giving you the best chance to win games, that's why it's important."
Cal (10-6 Pac-12) controls its own destiny for the fourth place finish. All it needs is one win in these last two games (the Bears finish at Colorado Saturday). If the Bears beat Utah (9-7), it's over. Cal clinches fourth.
If Utah knocks off the Bears, things get interesting. The Utes could take fourth place outright if they beat Stanford in their finale and Cal loses to Colorado. But if Cal and Utah wind up tied, the situation is complicated.
Take a deep breath and try to follow. If Utah beats both Cal and Stanford and the Bears beat Colorado, both will be 11-7. The first tie-breaker is head-to-head, and they will have split the two games. Then it's on the second tie-breaker: "Each team's record (won-lost percentage) against the team occupying the highest position in the regular season standings and then continuing down through the standings until one team gets an advantage."
Cal and Utah will have identical marks against every team in the league starting at the top until they reach the bottom. Utah has that inexplicable loss to Oregon State, a team Cal (and everybody else) swept. The Bears would then prevail.
But, if Utah beats Cal and then both lose their finales, the tie-breaker will hinge on the outcome of Thursday's Stanford-Colorado game and whichever of those teams finishes higher in the standings. They are currently tied. Utah would have the advantage if it's Colorado, the Bears splitting with the Buffs while Utah went 2-0. The tables turn if it's Stanford. The Bears went 1-1 vs. the Cardinal, while Utah would wind up 0-2. Still with me?
I won't mention the possibility of a three-way tie for fourth involving USC. Both Cal and Utah won their only match up with Trojans, eliminating them from consideration.
The Bears could spare everyone all this fussing simply by winning Thursday night. That will not be easy. Utah took Cal to double overtime in Berkeley before losing by two on Jabari Bird's dunk off Charlie Moore's lob with 2.6 seconds left. Utah is much tougher at home, going 12-3 this year, with the losses coming at the hands of UCLA, Oregon and Butler.
"The atmosphere of their crowd and their fan base," Martin said when asked what made the Utes so tough at home. "I think everybody plays with more confidence when you are playing at home."
Utah's best player is still 6-9 forward Kyle Kuzma, who put up 23 points, 14 rebounds and a couple of blocks against Cal the first time. "Kuzma is a good player you expect him to score points," Martin said. "He does a great job. When he's not scoring from outside, when he's not scoring low post moves you've got find a way to keep him off the glass. He's a guy who's going to find ways to score the basketball. You can't just stop him one way. He can play basketball."
At an average of 79.5 points per game, the Utes are the second-highest scoring team in the conference. "There are a couple of areas where they score well," Martin said. "They get out in transition, maybe more so than in the past. But they score a lot of points in the lane. Their big guys, Kuzma and even (David) Collett are not necessarily 'back-to-the-basket' guys where they post up the whole time. They can fake something and make moves toward the rim off the dribble. When that happens it spreads you out defensively. â€¦ And their guards attack the rim as well."
Before their victory at Colorado on Thursday, the Utes had lost two in a row, four of six and five of eight. One reason for the struggle had been free-throw shooting, and they went into the weekend hitting just 62.7 per cent in their conference games. But Thursday they nailed 10 of their last 12, 25-for-32 overall, which helped immeasurably in the 86-81 contest. Had they shot that well at Oregon State, where they went 5-for-9 in a 68-67 loss, they would be in much better shape.
"We've been putting a lot of time in them," head coach Larry Krystkowiak said of the free throw performance in Boulder. "Sometimes you need an environment like this to see it go in. Maybe it will help us for the rest of the league. If we're going to start shooting well, I'd like to start right about now."
Utah has had some turmoil. Prior to the Colorado game Krystkowiak announced that freshman guard Devon Daniels was no longer a member of the team. "Devon Daniels has been suspended from the team indefinitely, due to conduct detrimental to the team," the coach said in a statement that was given to the media shortly before tip off. After the game, Krystkowiak would not elaborate, except to say that it's an "internal" issue and not a legal question.
"I need to sit down and visit with him," Krystkowiak said. "We'll see where we're at."
In his Tuesday press conference, Krystikowiak was no more forthcoming. "He has been at practice but he's not practicing," the coach said. "We're in a holding pattern and we haven't made any decisions with anything."
Daniels, 6-5, had appeared in all 27 games prior to Thursday and started 26. He's fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 10.4 points per game. The 18-year-old also averages 4.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists. He did not score in the first match up with Cal.
It might be a coincidence, but in Daniels' absence the Utes showed an increased ability to share the ball. Utah had six players scoring eight or more points, three players with three assists each and only 10 turnovers after averaging 15 over the previous eight games.
"I thought a little bit of adversity had built up," Krystkowiak said. "I thought maybe an Oregon State game, we were playing not to lose. You're protecting. I think our mindset changed where we realized we had to go out and make plays. The league isn't easy."
Senior Gabe Beeler, who averages 3.3 points per game, started at Colorado and is slated to start Thursday in place of Daniels.
In the first match up Cal built a 14-point lead in the first half, only to see Utah come back and tie it by the end of regulation.
"I think when Utah went to their zone (defense) last time, we kind of struggled a little bit," senior guard Sam Singer said in a press conference this week. "We didn't hit a lot of shots, which makes it tough against the zone. If you hit shots, that makes it tougher for them to stay in the zone. But we've got to do a better job of attacking it."
- Cal leads the all-time series 14-13, but the Utes have still won five of the last seven overall and seven of 12 in Salt Lake City.
- The Utes have scored 80 or more points in 16 games overall and in eight Pac-12 Conference games. Cal has topped 80 just five times.
- The 79.5 points Utah is averaging ranks second in the league and 47th in the country.
- The Utes average 41.6 points per game inside the paint, while giving up just 28.9 points per game.
- One of the league's better rebounding teams, Utah is second in the league and 13th in the nation with a +7.9 rebound margin. The Utes have tallied 38.6 rebounds per game, while giving up just 30.9. The Utes have posted 40 rebounds or more as a team in 10 games, and out-rebounded the opposition in 21 of 28 games.
- Utah is 62-8 overall at the Huntsman center since 2013-14, 28-6 there against Pac-12 teams.
- Kuzma is averaging a double-double, leading the Utes in scoring at 16.2 ppg and rebounding at 10.0 rpg.
- Collette, a 6-8 junior forward, is second in scoring (14.3) and rebounding (5.1).