(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 for the Pac-12 tournament on quite a roll.
The 24th-ranked Golden Bears have won eight of nine games to earn the third seed, and their next test comes in Thursday night's quarterfinal matchup against an Oregon State team looking for a signature victory to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume.
Cal (22-9) started the season with high expectations and a No. 14 ranking in the AP poll after coach Cuonzo Martin brought in talented freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. But losses Thanksgiving weekend to San Diego State and Richmond started a stretch in which the Bears went 10-8, leaving their NCAA hopes in peril.
With improved defense following Martin's decision to give more time to big men Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks, Cal is playing as well as anyone in the conference.
"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."
But Martin said most of the practice time leading up to Thursday will be spent fine-tuning what his team has been doing well rather than game-planning for the opponent. The Bears' only loss over their last nine was a 64-61 defeat at then-No. 18 Arizona before rebounding to beat Arizona State 68-65 on Saturday.
"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," Martin 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. 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 scored 20 points in the first meeting with the Beavers (19-11), but Pac-12 defensive player of the year Gary Payton II - the first player in conference history to win the award twice - also had 20 to go along with 11 rebounds, eight assists and four steals in a 77-71 win Jan. 9 that snapped a five-game skid in the series.
Jabari Bird's 23 points helped Cal avenge that defeat with an 83-71 win Feb. 13. The rubber match figures to be much more important for Oregon State, which could get off the NCAA bubble with a victory.
It has won four of its last five after beating 11th-seeded Arizona State 75-66 in the first round Wednesday. Stephen Thompson scored 13 points while Payton added 10 and nine boards for the Beavers, who held the Sun Devils to 36.1 percent from the field.
"We know the recipe to beat (Cal)," Payton said. "We beat them once during the regular season, and we just need to come out and be physical."