UCLA has used a strong three weeks to put itself in position to defend its regular-season Pac-12 title. An impressive road trip up to the Bay Area might be necessary for those hopes to survive the week.
The 23rd-ranked Bruins seek their fourth straight win and seventh in eight games Wednesday night in Berkeley against a California team that just displayed the kind of road mettle it'll now try to suppress.
"If we can continue to improve defensively as the season goes on, we have a legitimate shot at winning some big ball games," UCLA coach Steve Alford said Saturday after an 80-66 home win over Utah. "We have a very difficult road trip, and we have a lot of work ahead of us. As we draw closer and closer to March, we're just trying to become a better basketball team."
UCLA (20-5, 9-3), the top scoring team in Pac-12 play at 80.5 points per game, shot 53.4 percent and made 7 of 13 3-pointers to pull away from Utah in the second half. It held true to its standard strong guard play with a game-high 24 points out of leading scorer Jordan Adams (17.1 points per game), 16 from Kyle Anderson (15.4) and 13 from Norman Powell (11.4).
"You really have to be focused. Every team in the Pac-12 can beat each other," Adams said. "Today was about me figuring out what to do - I just wanted to cut to open areas on the court."
Anderson has 17 points and 12 rebounds on Jan. 26 in a 76-64 home win over Cal, but forward David Wear led the way with a career-high 18 points. His previous best of 17 came at Cal on Dec. 31, 2011.
UCLA, a game back of Arizona for the conference lead, heads to Stanford on Saturday after first hoping to end a three-game skid in Berkeley.
But Cal (17-8, 8-4) has done some of its best work in recent seasons against the best teams in the conference. It hasn't lost to a ranked Pac-12 foe in more than three years, a 5-0 stretch with wins over then-No. 1 Arizona on Feb. 1 and at then-No. 17 Oregon on Jan. 9.
Beginning with the Arizona game, the Golden Bears have won three of four, including consecutive road wins at Washington State and Washington. The 72-59 win Saturday over the Huskies set them up to match UCLA for second in the league with two-loss Arizona now within reach.
Four of Cal's last six will be played at home.
"At first, a lot of people were talking that (the Wildcats) were just going to sweep the conference and no one can beat them," Cal point guard Justin Cobbs said. "Everybody's beatable in this conference. With Arizona State knocking off Arizona, it tightened things up a little bit. ... It's time to play, we're fighting for a Pac-12 championship now, there's only six games left.
"If you don't have a little fire under you, something's wrong. So, we'll come out aggressive."
Cobbs, leading the team with 16.0 points per game, went 3 of 11 with 10 points against Washington but was picked up by backcourt mate Tyrone Wallace's 20 points. Forward Richard Solomon added a season-high 18.
Despite the off night, Cobbs is averaging 19.2 in his last five games while Wallace has gone for 15.8 in the same span.