As Cal's basketball team begins second-round play in the Pac-10 Conference on Thursday night against Arizona State at Haas Pavilion, two things jump out:

1) Winners of three in a row and five of their past seven, the Bears are perhaps better than expected, and improving.

2) It nonetheless remains difficult to concoct a realistic scenario by which they reach the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.

Of course, in the one-game-at-a-time mind-set of coaches and players, the latter is not even a question worth asking. The Bears have nine regular-season games ahead, plus the Pac-10 tournament. Lots of opportunity to determine their fate.

At 12-9 overall and tied for fourth in the Pac-10 with Washington State at 5-4, they are an upper-division team at the turn of the conference schedule. Not bad considering they were projected to finish seventh.

How do they fare from here?

Let's examine them point by point:

  • Offense: This is no longer the team that scored five points in the first half against Notre Dame. The Bears are averaging 76 points in Pac-10 play because they are moving the ball effectively and getting it inside to big men Harper Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison.

    "I think the guards have hit a pretty good stride," Kamp said. "They've been able to create some easy stuff the last couple games for the bigs."

    Also, when freshman guard Gary Franklin transferred two days after the conference opener, roles became clearly defined, and the Bears have been better as a result. "It's clarified what has to happen," coach Mike Montgomery said.

    The biggest change came from freshman guard Allen Crabbe, who averaged 8.4 points while Franklin was here but has scored at a 17.4 clip in eight games since.

  • Defense: Montgomery is a man-to-man coach, but the Bears' lack of depth prompted a recent move to zone. He's trying to guard against fatigue and foul trouble. The results have been mixed. Cal bottled up USC's Nikola Vucevic but gives up a lot of open 3-pointers.

    "There's always room for improvement on defense," Kamp said. "Toward the end of the season, the teams that win are the ones that play great defense."

  • Needs/concerns: The Bears must continue trying to develop depth. Aside from freshman forward Richard Solomon, Cal has gotten just 35 points from its bench in nine Pac-10 games. The lack of help in the backcourt has forced Cal to play a bigger lineup at times.

    "You're just not sure what you're going to get," Montgomery said of his bench players. "But they're getting a little more confident."

    Montgomery also wants to see better rebounding and fewer turnovers.

  • How it adds up: Cal probably needs seven wins in its final nine games, plus at least one in the Pac-10 tournament just to be part of the NCAA conversation. A tall order.

    Aside from Washington, which has gone 11-0 at home by an average margin of 27 points, there may be no game on the schedule the Bears cannot win.

    At the same time, there isn't one that can be marked as a sure Cal victory. That includes last-place Arizona State, which lost twice at home last week to the Los Angeles schools by a combined three points.

    Thursday's game
    Arizona State (9-12, 1-8 Pac-10) at Cal (12-9, 5-4), 8 p.m., CSNBA