What you need to know: Cal and Utah are both tied in for third in the league standings, and both have lost to UCLA already. This battle could be key in helping decide the fourth spot in the final Pac-12 standings, which of course is the last bye in the conference tournament.
The difference between the top tier and the middle is never more pronounced than between four and five and neither of these teams wants to be five.
Time, Place and [radio waves in] Space • It's a 7 p.m. MST tip when Utah comes to the Haas Center to face Cal. Pac-12 Networks on TV and ESPN 700 on the radio. Last time the Utes were in Haas, they fell 71-58.
The Line • As of Thursday morning, Cal is favored by 2.5 points according to Vegas Insider. Utah is 10-8-1 against the spread this season, and have failed to beat the spread in their last two games.
Pregame Quotable • David Collette on if the match-up matters more: "I don't see any different than coach sees it. We needed the other games to get to this position, so I can't say this is more important than the other games."
Opposing coach • Give Cuonzo Martin's teams this much: They defend. In his third year at Cal since being nearly run out at Tennessee, Martin is leading his team to their second year in the top 20 of defensive efficiency. This team doesn't have the hype of last year's squad after Jaylen Brown and Rabb both joined, but Martin has at least kept Cal relevant and in the top half of the league, even if he's doing so quietly. He's 56-32 with the Golden Bears, and his contract extension in October was a huge victory for a man that was skating without one for nearly two seasons. He's 1-3 against Larry Krystkowiak's Utes while at Cal.
Telling Stat • Pacing will be important. The Utes' four slowest games of the year were all losses: Oregon, Arizona, Xavier and Butler. Similarly, of Cal's nine fastest-paced games of the year, four have been losses.
Bears Roster Overview • This is arguably the biggest front court in the league, led by 6-foot-11 Ivan Rabb who has only gotten stronger and more sure in the last year. He's averaging a double-double, and is a tough match-up for any post. He's bolstered by 7-footers Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks, who help make Cal's 2-point defense (42.5 percent) the 12th-best in the country. The front court is also key in blocking 12.8 percent of shot attempts (No. 45 nationally). But Rabb's best scoring support comes in the back court: With Jordan Mathews at Gonzaga and Ty Wallace with the SLC Stars, 6-foot-6 Jabari Bird has emerged as a leader, scoring in double figures in seven of nine conference games. Pint-size point guard Charlie Moore is quietly one of the top freshmen backcourt players in the league (13.9 ppg, 3.5 apg), and helps key a lot of what Cal does offensively. Transfer Grant Mullins is a troublesome 3-point threat (44.7 percent), and Sam Singer is a scoring threat off the bench who can occasionally go off. Cal's defensive identity is bolstered by the 8th-best defensive rebounding rate in the country the bigs go after the boards. But Cal is not a great finishing team: They only rank No. 215 in effective field goal percentage. As such, their style is to control tempo, ranking as the second-slowest team in the league only to Oregon State.
Behind Enemy Lines • As you'd expect, Rabb is getting used to facing double-teams, The San Francisco Chronicle writes.
Something's Gotta Give • Utah's incredibly hot shooting (59 percent eFG, No. 3 nationally) vs. Cal's smothering defense has got to be the defining battle of the game. The one-on-one match-ups won't dictate this as much as team scheme, and whether Utah can move the ball and attack to get the shots they want. Against Cal's length, which might only be matched by Arizona's frontcourt, it'll be tough to finish. Kyle Kuzma and David Collette need to win down low and create to open up the offense, and getting stops that lead to transition opportunities will be key for Utah to stay a step ahead.
Cal's Edge • The Golden Bears are really good defensive rebounders, and it'll be hard to see how Utah stops that unless Collette or some of the guards get really involved. It will be key to make the first shot against Cal: 74 percent of the time in conference play, they come down with the miss. Utah's defensive rebounding rate in conference play is intriguingly better than Cal's, but the offensive rebounding has been a different story. It's unclear if Utah will crash the boards with extra men for rebounding opportunities if they don't, their first shots better be really, really good.
Utah's Edge • Watch how the battle in the paint unfolds when Utah is on defense: It could work out really well for them. The Utes showed how potent their double-teaming was against OSU's Drew Eubanks, who only scored 8 points without a partner scoring threat in the post. It didn't work against Oregon, but Rabb doesn't have a Chris Boucher or Jordan Bell to dish off to: Rooks and Okoroh both average six points per game or less. Cal's 2-point percentage is 48.1, the 221st-best mark in the country. Going against a Utah defense that allows 45.9 percent shooting inside the arc, that seems like a solid bet that the Golden Bears will have to light it up from deep to open up the paint down low.
Injury Watch • Cal has played the last few games with its key guys healthy after missing Bird and Rooks for long stretches. The Utes are as healthy as they've been this year, Krystkowiak said on Tuesday.
Watch Out For • Can the Utes dictate tempo? As mentioned above, pacing will probably help decide who wins the game, and Cal is most uncomfortable when playing fast. The Utes have been caught looking unsteady and unsure in games against Arizona and Oregon, when defensively strong teams fizzled their aggressiveness. Particularly with Devon Daniels and Lorenzo Bonam at the helm, Utah's offense will have to continue to attack and push up the floor, on the hunt to catch the Golden Bears flat-footed.