BERKELEY — ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who will be at sold-out Haas Pavilion tonight to help call Cal's game against UCLA, admits he is surprised by the Golden Bears.
"I didn't know they'd be quite this good," he said.
Bilas has plenty of company.
"I think we're better than everybody imagined we were going to be, given where we're coming from," coach Mike Montgomery said of his Bears, who are tied for second place in the Pac-10. "I didn't know what to expect. I couldn't predict what they could or couldn't do. When we shoot the ball, we're good."
The Bears (21-7, 10-5) shot 54 percent Thursday night and fought off USC in overtime, winning 81-78 to improve their record at Haas to 16-1. In tonight's home finale, Cal hopes to break free of its second-place logjam with No. 22 UCLA (21-7, 10-5) and No. 14 Arizona State (21-6, 10-5).
If things fall right — Cal beats UCLA, No. 21 Washington loses to Arizona and ASU loses at Washington State — the Bears could wake up Sunday just one-half game behind conference leader Washington.
"They're not a Final Four team — let's not go crazy," said Bilas, who has watched the Bears often on tape but sees them in person tonight for the first time this season. "They're a good team."
Armed with 20 regular-season wins and 10 wins in the conference, the Bears have credentials that have gotten Pac-10 teams into the NCAA field without exception the past 20 years.
But junior guard Patrick Christopher, who scored a career-high 29 points against USC, said this is no time to exhale.
"We have three more games to play. You can never relax," he said. "If we lose three straight, everything is a different story. But I think (the win over USC) puts us in a good position and gets us pumped up."
"I don't think anybody's who's still on the cusp of the tournament would be well-served by losing a bunch of games. I think they're in pretty good shape," he said. "The question everybody asks (is) what do they have to do to get in? Kind of the common-sense answer is keep winning."
That the Bears have won as often as they have after finishing ninth in the Pac-10 under Ben Braun last year is a testimony to Montgomery, Bilas said.
"I don't know if he's changed what they are, he's just used what they are ... ," Bilas said. "They're athletic, they use ball screens very well, they can spread you, and they really shoot the 3 very well. If you're not really good in transition defense, they can put up a lot of points on you."
When Cal played UCLA at Pauley Pavilion last month, the Bruins were the ones who thrived in transition. They forced the Bears into a season-high 21 turnovers, converting them into 26 points in an 81-66 win.
That began a four-game stretch where the three-time defending Pac-10 champs beat Cal, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame by a combined 91 points. They have allowed 77.4 points the past five games, winning just twice.
"No question," UCLA coach Ben Howland said, "for us to have success as we head to into this final stretch, we've got to be better defensively."
Montgomery expects the Bruins to ratchet up their defense tonight.
Contact Jeff Faraudo at email@example.com.
6 p.m. TV: ESPN.