BERKELEY — The road gets steep beginning tonight for the Cal basketball team during a regular season-ending stretch that falls under the category, "Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it."
Tied for third place in the Pac-10 standings, the Bears (20-7, 9-5) return home after mixed results in Oregon, happy to be back playing at Haas Pavilion, where they are 15-1 this season.
The immediate assignment is USC (16-10, 7-7), desperate for a victory after losing four of five but dangerous. The Trojans beat Cal 73-62 in Los Angeles last month.
And this is just the first step in a two-week gantlet leading to the Pac-10 tournament. Three-time defending conference champion UCLA visits Saturday before the Bears travel to Arizona next week.
"In reality, you should expect that if you're going to compete for the top spot or the top couple spots," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said, "you're going to have to play against the best teams and beat them. And that's who we've got."
The Bears could have made things a little easier on themselves but lost 65-54 at Oregon State on Saturday. A victory would have left then a half-game out of first place, perhaps a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, a second loss to the Beavers is a rare entry in the "bad loss" column of Cal's postseason resume and comes at a precarious time.
How tough does it get after tonight?
Is tonight the proverbial "must-win" game?
Montgomery doesn't like those mind games, noting, "If we lost (tonight) and won Saturday ..."
Then he relented, acknowledging the Bears can't afford to be distracted by Saturday's game with the Bruins and a visit from the ESPN "Game Day" entourage.
"We've got to focus on (tonight), there's no question," he said.
Montgomery wonders how his players, who were not involved in a run toward the NCAAs the past two seasons, might respond.
"I think there's probably some pressure," he said.
"I would say a lot of pressure," agreed point guard Jerome Randle, angry with himself Saturday when he scored a season-low four points at Oregon State. "Our backs are against the wall. But we're right there, we're close. I don't want to miss out on this opportunity."
Note: A Cal spokesman said whether center Jordan Wilkes plays tonight will be a game-time decision. Wilkes, who broke his nose and sustained a concussion Thursday at Oregon, was not definitively cleared to play Wednesday. If he is able to go, he will wear a protective mask.
Contact Jeff Faraudo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today's men's game: