No margin for error left for Cal

Justin Cobbs (USA Today Sports)

Reality is setting in for California, which can't afford to slip up against Oregon State on Thursday if it hopes to finish in the upper half of the Pac-12.

BERKELEY, Calif. – California and Oregon State, the Golden Bears' opponent Thursday night at Haas Pavilion, are really quite similar.

Both rely on a pair of guards for their overwhelming offensive punch. Both rely on unconventional front line play. Both rely on their defense to create easy points in spurts.

The only difference is that Cal (11-8, 3-4 Pac-12) was burdened by preseason expectations, picked to finish third in the Pac-12 Conference by the media. The Beavers (11-9, 1-6 Pac-12) were slotted eighth, making their struggles more understandable.

Oregon State lost senior center Angus Brandt to a torn ACL after just four games, while forward Eric Moreland was suspended for three games. They pummeled Washington, but lost by six points to Kansas, by one at USC and by three to Washington State.

"Most of the teams are better than they appear, but yeah, they are going to be a solid challenge," reserve guard Brandon Smith said. "I think that's the case almost with most of the Pac-12 this year."

That's one of the reasons Cal sits seventh in a resurgent – at least by recent standards – Pac-12. The regular season conference championship is no longer a realistic possibility, and even finishing in the top four to earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament seems like a long shot.

"We are what we are," head coach Mike Montgomery acknowledged. "There's not a whole lot of games we should have won necessarily. We just got to get better."

That means getting a full game from guards Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs, who staged another first-half disappearing act last Sunday at Colorado only to erupt for 33 combined points after the break.

The dynamic backcourt got no help from their starting forwards David Kravish and Richard Solomon, who totaled just 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Those sorts of struggles, along with their tendency to settle for jump shots instead of attacking the rim, have Cal tenth in the conference in both points per game and shooting percentage.

Compare that to Oregon State center Joe Burton, who is built like a fire hydrant at 6-foot-7 and 295 pounds but plays down low with tenacity and aggression, averaging 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in conference.

"He has learned to handle the extra weight," Montgomery said. "He's not going to jump over you, he's not going to run past you, but he positions himself well and sees the floor well."

Mix in guards Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson – "two scorers who have no conscience and can go off at any time," as Smith described them – and the overall length of the defense, Oregon State can certainly cause problems at a point when Cal can ill-afford any slipups, even after Montgomery said the conference regular season title is no longer in play.

"Our next game is very important," Smith said. "It's a must-win for us against Oregon State. We need to beat all the teams we're supposed to beat and battle with the teams that are ranked ahead of us."

Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.

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