UCLA (18-5, 8-3) at Cal (14-9, 6-5)
Tipoff: 6 p.m., Haas Pavilion
TV/Radio: ESPN2/AM 570
At a glance: The last time UCLA saw Cal, the Bears were inking a slot in the NIT. Mike Montgomery’s team arrived at Pauley Pavilion three days into the new year, and proceeded to miss all 13 of its 3-point shots. Combined with another 0-fer performance against Harvard a week prior, Cal left Westwood with an ignominious streak of 19 long-range misses and a 79-65.
The Bears are looking better as of late, having knocked off both Oregon and Arizona in their past three games. Taking down top-10 teams isn’t a bad way to get your first two wins of the season against top-100 RPI opponents, and in doing so, Cal has managed to inject some faint NCAA tournament hopes into a season that was looking like the worst of Montgomery’s five-year tenure.
“His teams have always improved throughout the year and this team’s no exception,” UCLA head coach Ben Howland said of Montgomery.
Added UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad: “They’re looking really good. We played them down here and they didn’t play as well. We didn’t play as well either. We’re really going to be ready for them.”
But the Bears still remain an unproven commodity, just as those tournament hopes remain faint. Both could start to change if they beat the Bruins. Standing in the way of that task is Cal’s lack of interior prowess. Only one starter, forward Richard Solomon, takes more than 29 percent of his shots at the rim. Three use at least 52 percent of their attempts on 2-point jumpers, including 6-foot-9 forward David Kravish (70 percent). On the season, the Bears rank in the middle of the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding percentage (33 percent).
That said, teams of all rebounding abilities have had little trouble against the Bruins recently. Washington State is no stalwart on the offensive glass, but grabbed 15 boards off of 32 misses at Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA has been outrebounded by at least eight in five of their last six games, going 3-3 along the way. In spite of that, the Bruins are just a half-game back of Oregon for first place in the Pac-12.
“I know we’re getting outrebounded, but the games that we’ve won, we’ve been able to control the tempo,” junior forward Travis Wear said. “I feel like we’re still in charge even though we might be getting beat on the glass.”
Players to watch: Allen Crabbe, the conference’s leading scorer, is the most obvious candidate here. The 6-foot-6 junior is coming off a 31-point eruption at Arizona that earned him Pac-12 Player of the Week honors for the first time. He and UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad — just 1.3 points behind Crabbe’s 19.8 per game average — likely won’t guard each other for extended stretches, but you can count on them exchanging shots all night.
“That’s a lot of motivation. He’s a really good player,” Muhammad said. “When I’m on the court, I always want to show that I’m the best. That’s one thing I try to do, just try to get my motor to play hard.”
For all Crabbe’s talent, he’s not known for driving hard to the rim. That’s changed a bit this year, as his 3-point attempts have gone down (6.1 to 5.3 per game) and his free throws up (2.6 to 4.7). Even so, the Bears need point guard Justin Cobbs, Russell Westbrook’s cousin, to have a strong game to have a chance tonight. No one outside of the backcourt duo scored in double figures in the team’s upset of Arizona.
On the Bruins side, watch for Travis Wear to start another streak of double-digit point games after a concussion ended his seven-game run.
CAL STARTING LINEUP:
F – Richard Solomon, 6-10, 235, Jr., 8.0 pts, 6.4 reb, 1.2 blk
F – David Kravish, 6-9, 221, So., 7.9 pts, 6.7 reb, 1.4 blk
G – Allen Crabbe, 6-6, 210, Jr., 19.8 pts, 5.6 reb, 2.6 ast
G – Tyrone Wallace, 6-4, 186, Fr., 7.2 pts, 4.7 reb, 2.8 ast
G – Justin Cobbs, 6-3, 190, Jr., 14.6 pts, 3.5 reb, 4.3 ast