Twenty-two years after playing UNLV for the first time, the Golden Bears take on the Runnin’ Rebels again in a matinee Friday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Cal lost 101-81 in 1989-90 to a Vegas team coached by the legendary Jerry Tarkanian that went on to post a 35-2 record and demolished Duke 103-73 in the national championship game.
This Vegas team is good — not nearly that good, but 12-2, ranked No. 21 in the AP Top-25 and unbeaten in eight home games. The Rebels beat North Carolina when the Tar Heels were ranked No. 1, so they are very good.
What we could find out here is just how good Cal is. The Bears are 10-2 and have won four in a row, but they are 1-2 outside Haas Pavilion and will play again without starting forward Richard Solomon, still nursing a stress fracture/reaction.
Comparing scores, even against common opponents, is a slippery slope. But both teams played UC Santa Barbara, and the results were somewhat different. UNLV needed two overtimes to subdue the Gauchos on the road, while Cal undressed Santa Barbara by 20 points at home, despite playing without two starters and having a third on the floor while under the weather.
It may or may not mean anything, but at least it suggests the Bears are starting to find themselves. Even without senior guard Jorge Gutierrez (food poisoning or the flu) and Solomon, and with senior forward Harper Kamp diminished by his own set of flu-like symptoms, the Bears dominated.
They played superb defense and were smart and efficient on offense. They got the ball to the right guys in the right places, and they made shots. They took the game from the start and never let UCSB compete.
Word from Vegas is that Gutierrez and Kamp are feeling 100 percent again. It’s possible that what struck them last Sunday/Monday was a bug, not food poisoning because Allen Crabbe wasn’t feel great on Wednesday. But he will be ready and the Bears should be at mostly full strength.
This is Cal’s final game before the start of Pac-12 play on Dec. 29 against USC. It could definitely benefit the Bears for NCAA tournament seeding purposes, but it’s hardly the most important game they’ll play this season.
Still, should be a fascinating measuring stick.