In Mike Montgomery's opinion, California has saved the best for last.
Montgomery's Golden Bears are wrapping up perhaps the most challenging stretch of their nonconference season. It started with a Dec. 2 game at Wisconsin, which California lost 81-56. It continued last Sunday, when the Golden Bears dropped a heartbreaking 76-75 home decision to No. 20 UNLV.
It concludes Saturday when California hosts No. 16 Creighton in a 10 p.m. game at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, Calif.
“Creighton is the best of the three teams we will have faced in this stretch,” Montgomery said. “This is not a one-dimensional team. Right now, McDermott is on a roll. He's a guy they feel real comfortable with.
“We have to figure out a way to minimize him knowing full well he's going to get some.”
Creighton All-America forward Doug McDermott has scored 80 points in the Bluejays' past three wins. In winning nine of its first 10 games, Creighton has outscored its opponents by an average of 19.2 points per contest.
California will come into Saturday's game trying to snap the two-game losing skid that followed six wins to open the season. Three of the victories, including a three-point decision over Missouri Valley member Drake, came in the Golden Bears' sweep at the Anaheim Classic.
California almost followed up the decisive loss at Wisconsin with a win over a ranked opponent, but UNLV scored the winning basket with 1.2 seconds to play on Quintrell Thomas' putback of a air ball.
“We were talking the day after that we couldn't believe we lost that game,” California guard Allen Crabbe said. “We really had that game. We're over it now, and we understand that we can't dwell on it.
“We can't do anything about it so we're moving on and getting focused for Creighton.”
Crabbe is averaging 21.9 points per game, which makes him the second-highest scoring junior in the country. The first? Creighton's McDermott, at 22.7 points per game.
Their other numbers are strikingly similar. McDermott is shooting 55.1 percent from the field, 52.3 percent from 3-point range and 85.2 percent from the free-throw line. Crabbe is at 52.3, 45.2 and 84.0 percent, and he's averaging 5.6 rebounds to McDermott's 6.7.
The players briefly crossed paths two summers ago at tryouts for the USA under-19 national team. McDermott made the squad, while Crabbe suffered an ankle injury early in the tryouts and did not.
Crabbe remembers learning quickly that McDermott is a force to be reckoned with on the court.
“The only thing I knew about him before the tryouts was that he was a teammate of Harrison Barnes in high school,” Crabbe said. “He didn't get the publicity that Harrison did, but when I saw him go out and perform, I was shocked.
“He was scoring the ball, getting rebounds. He has an all-around game. When you're versatile like he is, it causes problems. He's going to be one of main focuses as we prepare for Creighton.”
The Bluejays undoubtedly will spend time in the coming days trying to figure out a way to neutralize Crabbe, but, like McDermott, he's far from a one-man show.
Justin Cobbs, a 6-3 guard who started his collegiate career at Minnesota, is averaging 17.8 points while shooting a team-high 55.4 percent from the field. Five teammates in the regular rotation are averaging between 4.1 and 8.4 points per game.
Up front, the Golden Bears start 6-10 Richard Solomon and 6-9 David Kravish, and bring another 6-10 forward, Robert Thurman, off the bench. That size has allowed California to post a plus-5.4 rebounding margin on its opponents.
Still, rebounding is an aspect of the game that Montgomery said his team needs continued improvement. UNLV finished with a 38-20 rebounding advantage in Sunday's game, and Thomas' game-winning shot came after one of the Runnin' Rebels' 13 offensive rebounds.
“We should be a better rebounding team,” the coach said. “I don't think we react to the ball as well as we should. We've also challenged our guards to be part of the rebounding process. We have to get them involved.”
Montgomery, who led Cal to its first conference championship in 50 years in 2010, has been around the game long enough to know that sometimes a little luck can help, too.
“The block-off on the last play was there,” he said. “Their kid just moved quicker. If the ball hits the rim, it's over. But it didn't. If fell right into their guy's hands, so it was like Murphy's Law. All the things that could have gone wrong in that situation went wrong.”
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