BERKELEY -- The RPI computer gave Cal's basketball team a nice digital bump after its 77-69 upset of then No. 7 Arizona, elevating the Bears from No. 75 to 59 nationally. "I don't understand all that," said Cal's Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12 scoring leader.
By any measure, the Bears (14-9, 6-5 Pac-12) have a steep climb ahead to reach the NCAA tournament. The work starts Thursday at 6 p.m. with a home game against UCLA (18-6, 8-3), which began the week tied for first in the Pac-12.
"We know what we have to do," point guard Justin Cobbs said. "We go 5-0 at home and see what we can do on the road. We're pretty confident we can get two on the road: 7-0 and we're in."
Perhaps so. And although the Bears have lost four times at Haas Pavilion this season, they do have a favorable schedule to close the regular season, with five home dates and a trip to Oregon next week.
The real question is, short of winning the Pac-12 tournament and the league's automatic berth, what must Cal do to reach the NCAAs for the fourth time in five seasons under coach Mike Montgomery?
At this point, Cal is on the outside of any serious NCAA tournament conversation.
The Bears began the week in a four-way tangle for fifth place in the Pac-12, two games back of the leaders. Picked to finish third in the Pac-12 before the season, they are 8-9 since a 6-0 start. Until two weeks ago, they were 0-9 against teams in the top 100 of the RPI computer, which aids the NCAA selection committee in its evaluation of teams.
Hardly the stuff of an NCAA tournament resume.
The past two weeks were a step forward. Before winning at Arizona for just the second time in 18 years, the Bears knocked off Oregon, which arrived in the Bay Area alone atop the league standings.
"We have to defend to be successful," said Montgomery, whose team held Oregon to 21 points below its scoring average at the time, then limited Arizona to 39-percent shooting.
It helped significantly that Crabbe delivered probably the best all-around performance of his career, scoring 31 points on 12 of 15 shooting in a burst of assertiveness.
Asked how he can bring a similar mindset to every game, Crabbe said, "It's all up to me. Nobody's going to hold me back except myself."
UCLA coach Ben Howland, who has bemoaned for several years failing to successfully recruit Crabbe from his Los Angeles roots, called the 6-foot-6 Cal junior "a special player."
"Some of his shots the other night were just unbelievable," Howland said. "He has such great length, and he's really good at cutting without the basketball, maybe the best player in our conference at reading screens."
Things aren't perfect at UCLA, where famed alum and TV analyst Bill Walton last week was critical of home attendance at renovated Pauley Pavilion, placing the blame on Howland's coaching style and suggesting a change is needed. Walton is working the Cal-UCLA game for ESPN2.
Howland tried shrugging off the criticism this week. "He's an analyst and that's his job. It's his right to be critical and I understand that," Howland said of the former three-time collegiate player of the year. "It's just part of our business, especially in a high-profile position like being the coach at UCLA."
Montgomery echoed Howland's point that Walton's frame of reference is skewed, having gone 60-0 as a sophomore and junior at UCLA under John Wooden in the early 1970s.
"I like Bill. Bill's a good friend," Montgomery said. "But he's tough on people. I don't know that he thinks before he speaks."