LOS ANGELES – Under normal circumstances, California head coach Mike Montgomery might be doing everything possible to warn and prepare his team for a potential trap game Thursday at USC.
But these aren’t normal times in the Pac-12, staring down the very real possibility of ending up a one-bid league if things break wrong, so the Golden Bears can’t look past anyone, and definitely not toward their game with UCLA on Saturday.
“The game we’ve got to have is SC right now,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got to have wins. We’ve got to have road wins.”
“We still have a lot of work to do,” guard Justin Cobbs said.
That is especially evident on the road. Despite a 18-6 record, 8-3 in conference play, Cal is 2-4 away from Haas Pavilion this season. Montgomery is stressing the need for a weekend sweep.
“He just calls it a road breakthrough,” Cobbs said. “On the road, go out there and get it any way possible.”
Decimated USC (6-18, 1-10 Pac-12) would seemingly offer that chance, having lost its top two big men to injury and relying on an eight-man rotation including several walk-ons.
In their first meeting in January, however, the Trojans pushed the Bears to the limit in a 53-49 Cal win. Guard Maurice Jones got hot late, knocking down three late three-pointers and scoring 17 points to make the home crowd nervous.
“We had a great lead at home and we were playing well and they end up coming back,” Cobbs said. “It was a four-point game and we were on our heels. Just thinking back and knowing anything can happen.”
Jones has been the iron man, playing an average of 37.5 minutes per conference game, most in the Pac-12. His quickness has not diminished in spite of that heavy workload, averaging 12.8 points and 2.8 assists per game.
The challenge for Cobbs will be using his size to try and negate Jones’ zip.
“5-foot-7, he is so fast and he exerts a lot of energy coming off screens,” Cobbs said. “It’s hard to pressure with him being so quick.”
Montgomery praised the effort Jones and USC have continued to put forth.
“They’re still competing really hard,” he said. “They are in a lot of games. They just can’t sustain.”
Cobbs is learning that same lesson, the necessity of bringing consistent effort on every play, after sitting out last season to meet transfer requirements.
“You can’t go out there and lose focus at any time because that moment can be the turning point of the game,” he said. “A turnover, a defensive lapse. I’m doing a better job of it, taking every play for what it is.”
This week, Cobbs and sophomore guard Allen Crabbe, who should be ready despite spraining his right ankle against Arizona State, will enjoy a brief homecoming. It will offer Cobbs his most extensive playing time in LA, apart from a brief appearance with Minnesota during the 2009 76 Classic in Anaheim.
Cobbs has acquired a dozen tickets for family and friends, but another 18 will have to come by their own.
Still, Cobbs said the focus would be on coming away with two desperately needed wins.
“We’re right where we want to be," he said. "We don’t have any time to slip.”