* 8 p.m. Wednesday at Haas Pavilion (ESPNU)
Suddenly, the Golden Bears have the attention of the rest of the Pac-12.
Two weeks into the conference season, Cal (12-4, 3-0) finds itself in the familiar position few expected. In the role of contender.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.
Coach Mike Montgomery has guided the Bears to five straight top-four finishes in the conference. Including his time at Stanford, his past 14 teams have wound up no worse than fourth place — all but one of them third place or better.
Oh, it’s way early to be sure this team will follow suit. The Bears still have 15 conference games, beginning Wednesday vs. Washington (11-6, 3-1), which has beaten Cal four of their past five meetings.
But Cal sits alone in second place and already has successfully dispatched three road games on its schedule.
Asked what he thinks of the Bears’ conference start, UW coach Lorenzo Romar said, “I wouldn’t say I was surprised. But the fact that they’ve started off with three wins on the road is pretty impressive.”
The Bears got 32 points from freshman Jordan Mathews last Thursday at Oregon and get back freshman Jabari Bird on Wednesday night. But Romar said Cal’s veterans set the tone.
“Justin Cobbs is a fifth-year senior who is playing like one. He’s playing with a lot of confidence,” Romar said. “He seems to have a really good understanding of what it takes to impact the final score.
“Richard Solomon has really matured. He’s playing great basketball, leads our league in rebounding, has become one of their go-to guys. The toughness he’s playing with right now is really good.”
WSU coach Ken Bone, whose team visits Cal in Saturday afternoon, said the Bears have been fun to watch.
“Especially with the fact that Bird and (Ricky) Kreklow have been out, what they’ve been able to accomplish is really impressive,” he said.
Bone said it adds up to a challenging assignment for the Cougars, who have won just once in their first four Pac-12 games.
“They’re really, really good and we’ve been struggling,” Bone said. “They’ll be tough to match up against in a lot of ways. They’re right up there with Arizona.”
Washington began the season just 4-4, including a loss to UC Irvine. But the Huskies tweaked their defensive approach and relied on the offensive stylings of senior sharp-shooter C.J. Wilcox.
Romar saw early that the Huskies couldn’t couldn’t play the risk-taking, attacking defense that many of his better squads utilized. With 6-10 sophomore forward Jernard Jarreau sidelined by a torn ACL in the season opener and forward Desmond Simmons out the first 10 games with his own knee injury, UW wasn’t getting it done.
“We didn’t have rim-protectors. We had to reinvent ourselves and dial it back,” Romar said. “We allowed more help on penetration and we’re not giving up as many layups as we did early. We have more defensive integrity. That’s made a difference so far.”
Wilcox is averaging 20.5 points per game, converting 43 percent from the 3-point range.
“Wilcox is as a good a shooter as there is in the country,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “He’s got great range, a quick release.”
Montgomery needs one victory to move even with Oregon State coaching legend Slats Gill for third place on the all-time Pac-12 coaching victories list in conference play.
Montgomery is 275-142 in 24 seasons, while Gill was 276-241 in 31 seasons through 1964. Lute Olson (327) and John Wooden (304) are Nos. 1 and 2 on the list.