March 07, 2016

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) More than three months after leaving Las Vegas with a pair of early-season losses and searching for an identity, California returns to Sin City this week for the Pac-12 tournament on quite a roll.

The 24th-ranked Golden Bears (22-9) have won eight of nine games to earn the third seed and a first-round bye in the conference tournament as coach Cuonzo Martin's squad has done a good job fitting in talented freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb.

Cal started the season with high expectations and a No. 14 national ranking. But losses Thanksgiving weekend to San Diego State and Richmond started a stretch where the Bears went 10-8, leaving their NCAA Tournament hopes in peril.

But with improved defense following Martin's decision to give more time to big men Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks and improved chemistry as the players learned each other's strengths, Cal is playing as well as anyone in the conference heading into the tournament.

''You have to work toward it,'' senior guard Tyrone Wallace said. ''It did click in and once we started playing really well, everyone was playing for each other and everyone was playing selfless. It didn't matter how many shots you had. If one guy had it going or two guys had it going, just try to get them going. It did click in.''

The Bears will open play Thursday night against the winner of sixth-seeded Oregon State and No. 11 seed Arizona State. Cal has played both teams twice in the regular season, including a road win Saturday against the Sun Devils.

But Martin said most of the practice time leading up to the game will be spent on fine-tuning what his team was rather than game-plan for the opponent.

''In settings like this, you rely on your principles more than anything down the stretch of games because you don't have a lot of prep time to get ready for teams,'' he said. ''Everybody knows everybody, there's no new tricks. There's not a lot of time to put a whole new system in so it comes down to executing.''

Cal hopes a competitive season that featured nine conference games decided by fewer than 10 points will help a mostly untested tournament team thrive in March.

The Bears faltered late in a loss last Thursday night at Arizona before rebounding in the regular season finale to hold off the Sun Devils and wrap up the third seed.

''You've been through it, so you see it,'' Martin said. ''It's not a case of being shell-shocked if it happens again. You've been in those situations. It still comes down to a matter of making plays. This time of year, you'll be in those kinds of situations more times than not.''

Cal's strong season led to honors for some of its players. Brown was named first-team all-conference and the Pac-12 freshman of the year. Rabb was a second-team selection and Wallace was honorable mention despite missing five games with a broken hand. Brown and Rabb were also both picked to the all-freshman team.

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