1. Welcome Back, Mr. Smith
His contributions to the box score weren’t much – three points and three assists in 19 minutes – but the return of senior guard Brandon Smith to the lineup after missing six games with a concussion clearly made a big difference for California. The veteran’s steady hand and energy off the bench lifted the Golden Bears after a sluggish start, helping direct a 13-0 run. Cal closed the first half outscoring Utah 26-11.
Freshman Tyrone Wallace also benefited from Smith’s return, offering greater production from reduced minutes. Head coach Mike Montgomery had lamented that he couldn’t sit Wallace for Smith when the newcomer overreached and tried to do too much. But the opportunity to do just that clearly made a difference in Salt Lake City, as Wallace finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and eight assists in 34 minutes.
Smith alone won’t be enough to lift Cal back into the contentious Pac-12 title race, but his presence clearly elevated a tired, thin team.
2. We Three Kings
Cal’s three-point shooting had been abysmal in conference play this season, hitting just 13-of-49 looks from behind the arc in five Pac-12 games. Take away the apparent aberration of a 5-of-8 night at USC, that works out to just under 20 percent.
So it was more than a welcome relief when the long ball started falling early, with Cal making 4 of its first 6 attempts. Allen Crabbe’s two makes sparked him to the kind of production that had been so commonplace during the non-conference schedule, finishing with a game-high 23 points.
Sure, Cal finished the night 6-of-18 from three, but those early buckets forced the Utah defense to respect the perimeter and opened up other aspects of the offense.
Considering the offensive limitations of the roster, Cal needed that additional pop to lift them back to .500.
3. The Little Things
Montgomery had been telling the press not to expect any offensive masterpieces, that Cal would have to rely on its defense to manufacture wins, perhaps in the hopes that that message would filter down through the media to his team.
It certainly took hold against Utah, with 16 steals, matching their total through the five previous Pac-12 games. In a five-point win, Cal was plus-five in points off turnovers. The energy and activity on the defensive end that has been too often lacking was finally visible.
If Cal is to secure a top-four seed and first-round bye in the conference tournament in Las Vegas, that kind of focus and dedication will be needed on a night-in, night-out basis the rest of the way.
Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.