BERKELEY, Calif. – California has not only survived its toughest stretch in conference this season, but emerged from the four-game gauntlet with signature wins over Oregon, Arizona, and UCLA.
The Golden Bears have put themselves back into consideration for the NCAA tournament. A top-four finish in the Pac-12 and first-round bye in the conference tournament that comes with it is now a viable goal. Even the regular-season title, unthinkable a month ago, could be back in play.
That is, if Cal can get past what sets up to be a rather obvious a trap game against USC on Sunday evening at Haas Pavilion (7 p.m., Fox Sports Net), considering the potential for a let-down after building that momentum.
But simply dismissing the surging Trojans, holders of the longest active winning-streak in the conference at four games, with that label would be a mistake.
Both USC and Cal are 7-5 in conference play, with the winner set to move into a fourth-place tie with Arizona State, playing the best they have all season.
But while Cal (15-9) has gotten back on track with improved effort and defensive play, USC (12-13) has done so with a more-relaxed approach and freewheeling offense since Bob Cantu was named the interim head coach on Jan. 14.
Free of the yoke of former head coach Kevin O’Neill, USC is scoring an average of 71.1 points in the eight games since his dismissal. Junior guard J.T. Terrell, who barely played under O’Neill and did not see action in Cal’s 72-64 win at Galen Center on Jan. 5, has deliver double-digit scoring in all but one game under Cantu.
“Bob’s gone in and said, ‘When you’re open, shoot it.’ They seemed to have thrived on that,” Cal head coach Mike Montgomery said Thursday.
With that approach has come a string of close contests, as only two games in the Cantu era have been decided by more than five points. USC improved to 4-2 in such circumstances with its 65-64 win at Stanford on Thursday.
Cal had no such worries in its last game, pouring it on the Bruins early and coasting to 76-63 win, but USC’s revival is a reminder that now is not the time to fall back into bad habits.
“We have to play hard,” Montgomery said.
“We got to go into every game and take it as seriously,” said guard Allen Crabbe, who is averaging 21.3 points per game on 25-of-49 shooting in three games against the Los Angeles schools this season. “We feel as a team we are unstoppable.”
Having earned the right to think that way, Cal now has to continue to prove it. That means avoiding a setback, obvious or not.
Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.