There may be no other way to describe it. California is currently the hottest team in the Pac-12 and the team playing the best basketball.
This isn't exactly a news flash to anyone who's been paying attention over the past few weeks. There's the five-game winning streak. There are the road wins over Oregon and Arizona two nationally ranked foes at the time and the two teams that controlled the league race for the better part of two months. And most importantly, there's the giant leap from NCAA Tournament bubble status to near lock for Mike Montgomery's crew.
It won't make things easy for Utah on Thursday night when the Utes travel to Haas Pavilion to face the Golden Bears. But then, nothing has been simple for Larry Krystkowiak in his second year at the helm. Utah will need to play as well as it has all month to position itself to pull off the upset.
"When you look at the film, you can see why they have been playing so well," Krystkowiak said. "They defend. They are playing much better offensively, and they are athletic. They have been one of the best teams in our league over the past month and it's not difficult to see why."
Looking over the two rosters, there are small similarities and gigantic differences. Krystkowiak and Montgomery are two old-school coaches who value rebounding and defense. The two teams are almost always well-prepared and don't often beat themselves.
But where Cal has Allen Crabbe the best scorer in the league and a Player of the Year candidate the Utes often don't know exactly where their points will come from on important possessions. Where the Golden Bears have Justin Cobbs running the offense, the reigning conference Player of the Week and an upperclassman, freshman Brandon Taylor is gaining experience on the job for the Utes. And where Tyrone Wallace is the only rookie infiltrating Montgomery's rotation on a nightly basis, Utah relies heavily on five freshmen.
In the second season of a major rebuild for Krystkowiak, the differences mark the gap between a Utah team that's won three conference games and the Bears, who are fighting for the league lead, despite a rough beginning to the conference schedule.
"We're playing better for longer periods of time," Montgomery said. "The kids believe in one another, and we probably are playing our best basketball. Guys have figured out what their roles are. They are playing better defense, and they concentrate and focus for longer periods of time."
Krystkowiak said he'll open up the rotation a bit for the last few regular-season games. Despite the tough record, the Utes have seen improvement over the course of the conference schedule.
Utah at Cal
O Haas Pavilion (Berkeley, Calif.)
Tipoff • Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV • ESPNU Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 11-15, 3-11; California 18-9, 10-5
Series history • Cal leads 11-8
Last meeting • Cal 62, Utah 57 (Jan. 24)