BERKELEY — After entering February with their postseason hopes in peril, the California Golden Bears head into March playing as well as anybody in the country.
The 25th-ranked Bears (21-8, 11-5 Pac-12) head into the final weekend of the regular season with a seven-game winning streak and hopes of winning a conference title. Cal needs a sweep in Arizona and then hope No. 9 Oregon loses at least once this weekend at UCLA and Southern California in order to claim at least a share of their second Pac-12 title since 1959-60.
“That’s big, that’s history,” coach Cuonzo Martin said Tuesday. “I always tell our guys when it comes to history, you can’t get those days back. That is what it is, it’s written in stone. That’s 20 years from now, 50 years from now. That won’t change.”
Those kinds of hopes seemed far-fetched for the Bears when they ended January by losing five of seven conference games. But Martin’s team has engineered quite the turnaround and enters Thursday night’s game at No. 18 Arizona with the second-longest winning streak among all power conference teams. Only No. 1 Kansas has a longer winning streak at 10 games.
A win on Thursday would give Cal its longest conference winning streak since taking 11 straight games in 1959-60 but the players say they remain focused on the small details, not the big picture.
“We’re not looking at it like that,” guard Jordan Mathews said. “It’s just an opportunity to get better.”
The only time the Bears have even won a share of the conference title since Pete Newell stepped down after 1960 came in 2009-10. There has been little success in Berkeley for much of the past half-century but Martin has started to change that trend in his second season at Cal with help from a stellar freshman class led by Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb.
Cal has been dominant during this current run, making it back into the AP poll for the first time since November. The Bears have outscored the opposition by nearly 15 points per game and won six games by double figures. The defense has led the way, limiting the opposition to 39 percent shooting from the field and 28 percent from 3-point range.
The offense has been aided by improved outside shooting. The Bears hit 42 percent of their 3-point attempts in February, up from 35.4 percent coming into the month. Martin said the turnaround happened after he added a practice drill where the team’s eight perimeter players are required to hit 200 3-pointers in a 12-minute span.
Jabari Bird has led the way by hitting 58 percent of his shots from long range (22 of 38), opening up the offense for Brown to slash and Rabb on the inside.
“That definitely helps a lot,” Rabb said. “It takes some of the attention away from me. It just slows the defense down when they’re trying to double or collapse on me. … We have a lot of guys who can make shots on this team so it makes it a lot more difficult for other teams.”
Brown has also gotten into the act with his outside shooting, making 10 of his last 22 3-point attempts after opening the season 18 for 68 from long range. That added dimension has made him a more complete player and Cal a much more difficult team to defend.
Martin credits Brown for understanding where he needed to improve his game and then making it happen.
“He’s really slowing down,” Martin said. “He’s a really a good athlete. His shot has really improved in my opinion. Early in the year he was shooting 3-point shots. Now he’s making them. It was more or less, ‘I’ll just shoot this shot or this pull up because it looks like a good move.’ But it wasn’t always the best move.”