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The Dagger

Cal routs inconsistent UCLA, continues long climb toward NCAA tourney contention

Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe celebrate during Cal's win over UCLA (USA Today Sports Images)

Because Mike Montgomery set such a high standard by turning Stanford into a national power during the late 1990s and early 2000s, many expected he'd do the same for Cal during his tenure there.

As a result, the most impatient Bears fans often focus on what he hasn't accomplished in Berkeley rather than what he has.

It's true Cal isn't challenging for Final Fours and No. 1 seeds the way Stanford did during the peak of its success under Montgomery, but the Bears have consistently been among the Pac-12's best programs.

They captured Cal's first Pac-12 championship in five decades in 2010. They earned three NCAA bids and four top-four Pac-12 finishes in Montgomery's first four seasons. And they're in position to potentially return to the NCAA tournament next month with a top-flight recruiting class set to arrive the following year.

Hope for this year's Cal team has been restored the past two weeks thanks to victories over the Pac-12's three best teams. After defeating Oregon in Berkeley and upsetting Arizona in Tucson, the Bears routed visiting UCLA on Thursday night, building a 25-point lead by halftime and coasting to a 76-63 victory.

Cal's surge has helped make up for a non-conference flop in which the Bears lost marquee games against UNLV, Creighton and Wisconsin and also suffered a discouraging home loss to Harvard. At 15-9 overall and 7-5 in the Pac-12, Cal might not make the NCAA field if the season ended today, but the Bears have a great chance to play their way into the field with four of their final six games at home.

What gives Cal hope of winning four or five of its last six to land an NCAA bid is that star Allen Crabbe looks capable of putting the team on his back. The Pac-12's leading scorer followed up a 31-point eruption at Arizona with 16 points, five rebounds and five assists against UCLA.

Cal isn't an elite defensive team this season, nor does it rebound particularly well, so it needs scorers to step up and complement Crabbe. It's a different guy every night these days, but the Bears are getting Crabbe help.

Against Oregon, guard Tyrone Wallace and forward Richard Solomon each scored in double figures and the Bears forced 22 turnovers to earn a win. Against Arizona, it was 21 points from point guard Justin Cobbs that aided Crabbe's 31. And Thursday night against UCLA, big men Solomon and David Kravish exploited an undersized Bruins frontcourt to combine for 35 points and 21 rebounds.

Cal's poor start to the season ensures it cannot afford many slip-ups the rest of the season if it wants to reach the NCAA tournament and extend Montgomery's streak of top four finishes in league play. But if the Bears can play as well as they did while Thursday's game was still in doubt, they may yet accomplish those goals.

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