That statement may seem incredible on its face, given' Utah's slide from a 5-2 start to a 4-5 stretch that has kept it in the middle of the Pac-12 standings. Cal has been there all along as well, unable to pull ahead into the upper tier, but also preventing a fall deeper down into the dead zone of the league.
KenPom gives Utah a slight edge in both of its games this week, while having Cal as an underdog in both of its road contests. In that scenario, Utah would be able to clinch a 4-seed, despite its fall from its January peak that had people talking March Madness. Vegas also gives a slight edge to the Utes, a 2-point favorite.
This is when a question of stakes enters the equation: Is Utah, a team certainly on the outside of the tournament looking in, playing for enough as they circle a bye as their top goal? Can the Utes, a team who may be not at full strength on Thursday, and whose destiny isn't even in their own hands, find enough to play for against a team that could still earn an at-large bid?
It's tough to say, given that Utah has had some blowouts at home, but also laid in some clunkers recently. A win over Colorado was a good first step, but was it enough progress to help propel Utah back to where they believe they can play?
Time, Place and [radio waves in] Space • Get your coffee or your Mountain Dew (or other acceptable beverage) ready for a 9 p.m. tipoff in the Huntsman Center, the second straight Thursday game the Utes have tipped off late. Fans should remember it's a blackout, so wear black to avoid sticking out (unless that's how you like it). ESPNU is televising the game, and ESPN 700 is broadcasting on the radio. It's also worth noting this is arguably Utah's most important recruiting game this year.
The Line • As of Thursday morning, Utah is favored by 2 points, according to Vegas Insider. Utah is 13-11-1 this season against the spread, and oddly, Utah's last three prior covers have been followed by two straight losses against the spread: win, loss, loss, win, loss, loss, win, loss, loss. The Utes are coming off a win against the spread with two games remaining.
Pregame Quotable • Larry Krystkowiak on his team's urgency or lack thereof: "You gotta go out and earn what you get. We've got to play a little bit more with an edge about us."
Last time out • It was Cal's turn to win in overtime on Jabari Bird's dunk, but it was a game Utah could've clinched itself. The Utes started out slow but came back, leading late until a foul allowed Charlie Moore to tie things up at the line. Everyone remembers the final play when the Golden Bears alley-ooped for a win, but Utah also had 19 turnovers and shot only 41.5 percent from the field.
Telling Stat • Everybody knows turnovers are critical, but how critical are they for the Utes? Utah is 14-3 when it has a turnover percentage of 21.8 percent of possessions or less (all three losses came against ranked Pac-12 opponents) according to KenPom. The Utes are just 4-7 when that turnover percentage rises to 21.9 percent or higher. The highest-rated KenPom team Utah has beaten above that mark is No. 171 Washington.
Bears Roster Overview • Who is the biggest threat? Is it double-double machine Ivan Rabb, whose production at power forward is similar to Kyle Kuzma's (although it's a different game)? Or is it Jabari Bird, who is the team's leading scorer and had 26 points in the last game against the Utes? For the time being, Bird looks like the one Utah has a harder time guarding he has progressively increased his scoring totals (from 4 to 8 to 13 to 26) in each of his last three games against the Utes. He can shoot it from deep (35.8 percent 3-point shooter) or can drive it inside. Rabb can't be discounted, however: He had a 12-14 double-double in the last match-up, and his rebounding in particular hurt Utah's chances to close out. Rabb leads a front line with two other 7-footers in Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks who help clog the lane. Between a huge front line and an active set of guards, Cal has the 12th-best defensive field goal percentage in the country, holding opponents to under 40 percent on average. That's plain stingy. Scoring is more of an issue: Before notching a Senior Day win over Oregon State last week, Cal hadn't broken the 70-point mark in four straight games (including three losses). Moore gave Utah problems as a driver and distributor, and surely Sam Singer and Grant Mullins would like to see a better performance than what they had against Utah last time out. Cal is squarely on the bubble, and need to close out strong to ensure getting a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Behind Enemy Lines • The San Francisco Chronicle has more on Cal's bubble status. It's thin ice for the Golden Bears.
Something's Gotta Give • Last time, the match-up between star forwards did not disappoint (although both struggled to hit shots at times). Kyle Kuzma had a team-leading 23 points and 14 rebounds, while Rabb contributed 12 points and 14 rebounds in the victory. Kuzma would surely flip his stats with Rabb's in this meeting for a chance to get back at the Golden Bears. While Kuzma's game is a little more rangy, and Rabb is a little more classic back-to-the-basket, both should make themselves felt, particularly in the rebounding department.
Cal's Edge • Utah's 3-point shooting has just been OK, at 35.6 percent. Cal's 3-point defense is elite: It allows just 31.1 percent. People seem fine with raking Cuonzo Martin over the coals for some reason, but his teams play defense. It's worth wondering how the streaky Utes will handle one of the Pac-12's best-guarding units on the perimeter given their yo-yoing percentages from deep: In the last five games, Utah has shot 40 percent or better three times from beyond the arc, but also shot under 20 percent in the other two.
Utah's Edge • Both Utah and Cal are pretty bad free throw shooting teams, with the Utes hitting about 68 percent and Cal hitting about 65. But one of these teams is No. 9 in effective shooting percentage, and one is No. 213. Cal just struggles on offense, often for long stretches. If the threes are falling, and the paint it locked in, Cal will need to cash in at the free throw line. Even though the Bears were able to hit some key free throws in the last game, they still were only 12 for 20 from the line. And that was at home.
Injury Watch • As far as we know, Devon Daniels is still suspended. His status for Thursday's game is completely at the discretion of Larry Krystkowiak. If Cal's last game is any indication, the Golden Bears look healthy.
Watch Out For • Who is waiting in the wings? Utah could play Daniels, who has been spotted around the practice facility locker room, although it's unclear if he's practiced in the last few days. Or Utah could play Gabe Bealer, who is relishing a long-awaited opportunity to play. If Utah elects to go without Daniels, here's your problem: That's Bird's position. Bird is capable of having a big night given Utah's uncertain depth and starter at the 3, so it'll be a challenge to keep him in check again.