Is this the best team in the Pac-10?
Can the California Golden Bears, able to beat Oregon State just once in four tries over the past two seasons, finish at the top of the standings?
Cal (18-8, 10-5) returned home still in first place after beating last-place Oregon 64-49 on Feb. 20, but its cushion at the top is minimal after a disturbing 80-64 loss to the Beavers on Feb. 18.
"We didn't play very well," coach Mike Montgomery said.
"We were just lulled to sleep, then they would drive and we would reach out and foul and they would shoot free throws ... 24 points off turnovers, (13) second shots and 36 foul shots ... on the road? Not going to work."
No, it didn't.
The Bears allowed OSU to score more points than it had in any conference game in two seasons under coach Craig Robinson.
As the team's edge dwindled to a half-game over Arizona State, Montgomery said the core issue is no different than it's been after many of the Bears' defeats.
Cal is a pretty good team when it plays hard; not so good otherwise.
"Just that effort overall, in terms of our mental set, is not going to work for us," Montgomery said after the OSU loss. "We've been through this before. We just have to know (that) we've got to do whatever it takes to win."
Senior Theo Robertson acknowledged the rest of the conference isn't going to feel sorry for his team.
"There's a high premium on these games," he said, looking ahead, "and we don't want to let any of them slip away."
--Cal held Oregon without a field goal over the final 10 1/2 minutes, limited the Ducks to 1-for-11 shooting from the 3-point arc. Oregon was 2-for-29 from deep in two games against the Bears.
--Cal has assembled a three-game winning streak three different times this season, but has not been able to extend any of those to four games.
--The Golden Bears, who led the nation in 3-point accuracy a year ago, shot just 5-for-20 from the arc at Oregon State, including 1-for-10 in the second half.
ON THE SPOT: The Bears continue to struggle most nights when presented with a zone defense. Oregon State's 1-3-1 gives them particular fits, but Cal also scored just 24 first-half points at Oregon and will have to overcome Arizona State's matchup zone on Saturday.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I always think it's kind of funny when he runs to the scorer's table and you hear a roar from the crowd and everybody's trying to figure out, 'Who is this guy?' Then he came in and he performed ... he gave them a show." -- Cal senior Patrick Christopher, on 7-foot-2 center Max Zhang, who came off the bench in the second half to ignite the Bears against Oregon.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: The Bears can't seem to distance themselves from the rest of the Pac-10. They remain in first place, but a 16-point road loss to Oregon State reduced their pad. Their RPI computer ranking still separates them from the pack, thanks to robust strength-of-schedule rating that was the result of non-conference losses to Kansas, Syracuse, Ohio State and New Mexico.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Jamal Boykin, F Theo Robertson, F Omondi Amoke, G Patrick Christopher, G Jerome Randle. Key Subs -- G Jorge Gutierrez, C Markhuri Sanders-Frison, C Max Zhang.
Cal 86, Washington State 70
Oregon State 80, Cal 64
Cal 64, Oregon 49
vs. Arizona, Thursday, Feb. 25
vs. Arizona State, Saturday, Feb. 27
at Stanford, Saturday, March 6
at Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles, March 10-13
IN FOCUS: Cal will end an era Saturday against Arizona State in a sendoff of five seniors, four of them starters. It would be quite an occasion, with the Bears possibly trying to clinch their first conference title in 50 years and PG Jerome Randle, one of those seniors, closing in on Cal's career scoring record. Haas Pavilion should be pulsing with emotion and possibilities.
--PG Jerome Randle, who averaged 28 points in a sweep of the Washington schools and was the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week, went 2-for-9 from the floor and scored just six points at Oregon State on Feb. 18. He also had four turnovers. In his last three games against the Beavers, Randle is 7-for-29 from the floor, including 1-for-16 from 3-point range. He scored 16 points against Oregon, pushing him past Lamond Murray into the No. 2 spot on Cal's career list with 1,702 points.
--Senior SG Patrick Christopher scored just three of his 12 points in the first half at OSU, then shot 1-for-9 in the first half during a 10-point performance at Oregon. Coach Mike Montgomery said Christopher practiced little during the week because of tendinitis in his knee.
--Senior SF Theo Robertson scored 13 first-half points at OSU, but only two more the rest of the night. He responded with 16 points, five rebounds and three assists at Oregon.