BERKELEY

THE NCAA Tournament bid in its hands, the 21 wins, the home game on national television.

The sellout crowd at Haas Pavilion for a high-stakes conference game just a few hours before the calendar turns to March.

The rising relevance of Cal men's basketball.

Did you really see this coming?

So soon?

No matter how the rest of the season plays out, the Bears in their first year under Mike Montgomery have exceeded reasonable expectations. Even after a 72-68 loss to UCLA Saturday night, they remain in the top half of the Pac-10 and on a path to the NCAAs.

They seized a bid Thursday night with an 81-78 win over USC, and went into Saturday playing for seeding — as they will do this week on the road against the Arizona schools and next week during the Pac-10 Tournament in Los Angeles.

Can Cal lose its bid? There is only the remotest possibility of that and it likely would require ending the season with a four-game losing streak.

The Bears (21-8, 10-6 Pac-10) are playing with house money. It showed Saturday, as they were sloppier than usual, committing 12 first-half turnovers and preventing any chance of opening up a substantial lead from which they might have held off the Bruins (22-7, 11-5).

"Just trying to do too much," point guard Jerome Randle conceded.


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"The reality of it is we should have been up a bunch in the first half," said Montgomery, whose team took a 34-32 lead into intermission.

Another reality is that Cal remains a work in progress, a team in transition, subject to myriad growing pains. What's remarkable is that it has managed to fashion such an impressive record.

The Bears are coming off consecutive seasons in which they lost twice as many Pac-10 games as they won. They lost their best player, Ryan Anderson, and their most imposing player, Devon Hardin. Conventional wisdom had Cal, while establishing chemistry and an identity, finishing between sixth and eighth in the conference.

Maybe, if things came together just right, it could end up a game or two above .500 overall and get a call from the NIT.

But the Bears wouldn't have any of it. When they won 11 of 13 nonconference games, they started to believe. They opened the conference season by sweeping the Arizona schools at Haas. Their self-assurance through January and February has at times approached swagger.

Is it because Patrick Christopher, their terrific wing, and Randle are a year older? That's a factor. They're juniors now and their leadership is as evident as it is essential.

Is it because forward Jamal Boykin brings the intensity on a nightly basis? Is it because wing Theo Robertson's jumpers tend to drop through the bottom of the net? Is it because 7-foot center Jordan Wilkes is fairly proficient in the context of the team?

It is all of that and, of course, more.

The biggest factor by far, though, is the man on the bench. Ben Braun for Montgomery is a fortuitous swap, an upgrade by most every measure. That Cal suddenly is one of the best-shooting teams in the country is directly related to Montgomery's ability to find way to make his team difficult to defend.

When you're hard to defend — UCLA coach Ben Howland says Cal has 27 different offensive sets — it's easier to get open shots and, naturally, shoot a higher percentage.

Moreover, Montgomery has instilled a sense of faith that was missing under Braun. The result is an improved level of chemistry, which breeds greater confidence.

And confidence is the biggest difference between Cal and UCLA. The Bruins expect to be ranked, expect to make the NCAAs and expect to do well when they get there.

"These guys know how to win," Christopher said. "They know what they're doing."

Which is Cal's ambition. The Bears aren't there yet, but they're a lot closer than anyone could have imagined.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.