BERKELEY — California’s Justin Cobbs points out how just a few weeks back, Arizona appeared invincible and everybody else in the Pac-12 Conference seemed to be playing for second place.
Two losses later for the Wildcats — one at the hands of Cobbs’ game-winning shot to stun then-No. 1 and unbeaten Arizona on Feb. 1 — and things have changed in a hurry. Cal is right in the middle of the chase for a conference title with six games to go.
“At first, a lot of people were talking that they were just going to sweep the conference and no one can beat them,” Cobbs said after practice Monday. “Everybody’s beatable in this conference. With Arizona State knocking off Arizona, it tightened things up a little bit. ... It’s time to play, we’re fighting for a Pac-12 championship now, there’s only six games left. If you don’t have a little fire under you, something’s wrong. So, we’ll come out aggressive.”
The first chance comes when Cal hosts second-place UCLA on Wednesday night and then USC on Sunday to begin an important stretch to close out the Pac-12 schedule. The Golden Bears have won three of four following a three-game losing streak after a road sweep of the Washington schools this past weekend. They are riding a three-game home winning streak against the Bruins.
“Getting the road sweep puts us back in conversation, there should be some excitement with that,” coach Mike Montgomery said.
Cal (17-8, 8-4 Pac-12), which began the week tied with Arizona State for third place in the Pac-12 with four of six remaining games at home in Haas Pavilion, recognizes all of the things it didn’t do right in a 76-64 loss to UCLA in Los Angeles on Jan. 26. Cal can make a move by beating UCLA (20-5, 9-3).
“We’re certainly going to have to play better than we did last time, there’s no question about that,” Montgomery said. “We were very, very poor in a lot of different areas last game. We’re going to have to pay much more attention to detail, we’re going to have to match their physical play, we’re going to have to recover on defense. We just really had a bad weekend that weekend.”
Next week, Cal travels to Arizona and Arizona State before finishing the Pac-12 slate back at home with the first matchups of the season against Utah and Colorado.
“It’s obviously a tough schedule. There’s still a lot of separation,” Montgomery said. “They were talking about Arizona’s schedule last night and saying how hard that was. It’s just the league’s hard. There aren’t a lot of places to go to get a win. Teams with four or less (losses) have to look at it as a possibility that things fall right there’s a chance they could get up in there. Arizona’s got some tough games left, but we all do.”
Consistency for Cal is the big thing Montgomery is telling his team, from doing the little things and making the extra effort on both ends of the floor.
“This conference is tough, everybody’s beating everybody,” Cobbs said. “Everybody’s one or two games behind each other, so there’s not a lot of room for slippage. We can’t just get hyped and pumped up for the No. 1 team in the country. We have to come out with the same energy and the same passion every game.”
On Monday, Cobbs was named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Cal’s leading scorer at 16 points per game said, “it’s a blessing, it shows you what hard work can do.”
“It’s great, he leaves Minnesota years ago and comes here and nobody much knows about him,” Montgomery said. “He’s had his trials and travails and he certainly deserves it. I would certainly put him in that group.”