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Cal aims to end regular season strong in down year for Pac-10

Cal is on the cusp of its first Pac-10 title in 50 years, and yet when the Bears face Arizona on Thursday night at Haas Pavilion there is a decent chance that the game won't be a sellout.

Depending on who you ask on the Cal team, this could be blamed on a) the variety of activities available to Bay Area denizens; b) the need for students to study; or c) a change in the game time that makes it difficult for fans to plan ahead.

Here's another possibility: It's hard to get excited about Cal or any team in the Pac-10 when the conference is at its lowest point in decades. When the Pac-10's top team recently dropped a game to lowly Oregon State by 16 points, when it has a 5-8 mark away from home and is unranked despite opening the year in the top 15, that's a tough product to get excited about.

Still, as the regular season enters its final stretch, the Pac-10's mediocrity has created a parity that should provide a very watchable finish. Eight teams are technically still in the hunt for the regular-season title, with Cal controlling its own destiny, Arizona State a half-game behind, and USC a game back despite playing merely for pride after banning itself from the postseason because of NCAA violations committed under former coach Tim Floyd.

"It is really the time of year when your legacy is defined," Cal forward Theo Robertson said. "We've put ourselves in a position where we can win it and it is exciting. You work all year thinking about these moments, about getting into March."

The question of how many NCAA bids the Pac-10 deserves has been a running debate for most of the season. Recent prognostications have only a single team -- the winner of the conference tournament -- landing a bid. The Mountain West, the Colonial, even the West Coast Conference are predicted to get at-large teams, but not the Pac-10.

Cal forward Jamal Boykin blamed that on the lack of television exposure the Pac-10 receives, and he pointed to Thursday's game against Arizona, which is on ESPN, as an opportunity to right that wrong.

"The people on the selection committee know about the conference. It is their job to watch games," Boykin said. "Being on ESPN is more important for public opinion, for the fans and those with East Coast bias who think the Pac-10 doesn't deserve more than one bid."

Cal probably deserves a little more credit for being a solid team than it currently receives. The Bears only nonconference losses were on the road to Syracuse, Ohio State, New Mexico and Kansas, all tournament teams. Coach Mike Montgomery called the Bears' home loss to UCLA in overtime in January "one that could come back to bite you a little," but otherwise the Bears have not been defeated at Haas Pavilion.

The perception that Cal (18-9, 10-5 in the Pac-10) is not a lock tournament team stems mostly from the rest of the conference's mediocrity, inflated preseason expectations that didn't take into account the Bears' lack of size up front, and nagging injures that contributed to costly setbacks like the one at Oregon State last week. Most recently, center Max Zhang suffered a collapsed lung in practice Monday and will miss Thursday's game.

"We have had a bunch of [key] guys who we are counting on miss some time and it begins to take its toll," Montgomery said. "And some guys have gotten a little out of shape because of the lack of being able to practice."

When healthy and on its game, Cal features three prolific scorers -- Robertson, point guard Jerome Randle and shooting guard Patrick Christopher -- and a few undersized battlers up front, such as Boykin. It's not a perfect team, but it's not an NIT team either, not with an RPI projected to be in the top 25 at season's end.

"If we win Thursday we are probably competing for the championship on Saturday [against Arizona State]," Randle said. "Me, Patrick and Theo talked about building a legacy and it starts right there. Our dream is close to coming true."

If Cal defeats Arizona, then beats the Sun Devils on Saturday and wins at Stanford on March 3, it will have won seven of its final eight regular-season games, own 21 victories and a 13-5 conference record. That should be enough to earn the Bears a bid even if they don't win the conference tournament.

The scenario that might be best for the Pac-10 would be for Cal to finish strong and take the regular-season title but then fall just short in the conference tournament, giving the automatic bid to another team.

"I haven't heard about the NCAA tournament and bids and all that from anyone on this team," Robertson said. "Our mindset has been on winning the Pac-10. If we take care of that, if we take care of our business, all of that will fall in place."

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