SAN JOSE (CBS / AP) — California practiced at home at Haas Pavilion on Wednesday, then boarded a bus for the quick 50-mile trip down Interstate 880 for its NCAA tournament opener against UNLV.

By the time coach Mike Montgomery arrived at HP Pavilion in the evening wearing a comfortable Cal sweatsuit, all the hard work had been done. He seemed to spend more time cracking jokes and sipping out of a plastic cup — “my whiskey,” he quipped — than making any last-minute adjustments during a light shootaround.

“Just in a better mind frame,” Montgomery said. “You have more time to kind of sort things out.”

The road certainly feels familiar — albeit maybe a bit unfair — for the favorites, too.

The fifth-seeded Runnin’ Rebels (25-9), who usually travel with a strong contingent, could be outnumbered in the stands when they face the Golden Bears (20-11) on Thursday. Despite being a higher seed and winning in Berkeley on Dec. 9, the selection committee placed UNLV in the heart of Cal’s alumni base in technology-rich Silicon Valley.

The short distance has allowed Cal to keep its usual practice schedule, avoid changing time zones and even send a player or two back to Berkeley for class. The last time Cal played an NCAA tournament game in the Pacific time zone was when it lost to Ohio State in the 1960 national championship game at the Cow Palace south of downtown San Francisco.

“We understand the inherent advantage of playing 45 to 50 miles away from Berkeley’s campus, and certainly Cal fans will have access to the arena from the proximity standpoint,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “One of the great traditions of UNLV Runnin’ Rebel basketball is in the NCAA tournament we travel extremely well. So we’re excited that our fans have access to the game. And certainly we’re excited about the opportunity we have. No doubt there will be a lot of Cal fans, but I think we’ll be well represented as well.”

Even with all the similarities, both times might look far different for the rematch.

Cal rolled off seven straight wins before losing at home to rival Stanford in the regular-season finale. The Bears also had to sweat out an at-large bid after dropping their first game in the Pac-12 tournament to Utah.

UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett, a 6-foot-8 forward, has progressed to the point that he’s projected as a lottery pick in the NBA draft. Junior forward Mike Moser dislocated his elbow 5 minutes into the Cal game. Khem Birch, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Pittsburgh, wasn’t eligible when the teams first met.

Cal outshot UNLV 53 to 43 percent in the first meeting, while the Rebels won the rebounding battle 38-30. Both teams committed 13 turnovers.

The contest had several lead changes late, and ultimately came down to one odd play: Quintrell Thomas rebounded Anthony Marshall’s air ball and scored on a short hook shot with 1.2 seconds remaining for a 76-75 victory.

“It’s a lot of motivation,” Cal guard Justin Cobbs said. “That’s what guys were talking about upstairs as a team when we saw that was the team that we’d be playing. It’s another opportunity to beat a good, talented team. We’ve played them before. We know what they like to do.”

One thing both teams share this March: bigger expectations.

UNLV is making its sixth NCAA tournament appearance in seven years and fourth straight. Senior guards Justin Hawkins and Marshall are the first Rebels to play in four tournaments since Stacey Augmon and Chris Jeter from 1988-91, which included winning the 1990 national title.

“Anytime you’re mentioned with a couple of greats in school history, it’s a tremendous honor to be mentioned with those guys. They did some great things,” Marshall said. “We’re trying to move forward and get that first win under our belt and try to go out the right way.”

The Bears bounced out of the Big Dance in 40 minutes last March, falling 65-54 to fellow No. 12 seed South Florida in a “First Four” game after going down 36-13 at the half in Dayton, Ohio. The Bears also missed the tournament in 2011, lost in the second round to Duke in 2010 and were defeated in the first round by Maryland in 2009.

Montgomery’s March magic over 18 seasons at Stanford hasn’t translated to Berkeley just yet. He has produced three of the last four Pac-12 players of the year — Allen Crabbe (2013), Jorge Gutierrez (2012) and Jerome Randle (2010) — and a conference crown but has failed to lead a deep run in the tournament in his first four years at Cal.

Montgomery said his progression at Cal is still in its early stages.

“I don’t know the guys are yet to the point where they start to look at the tournament as something we should be doing every year, we should be looking at advancing every year,” Montgomery said. “I think this year will be better than it was last year. Last year, the play-in game was really hard. It was tough. We weren’t there. So I’m hoping that this year they understand the value of competing and of the stage that they’re on.”

The Cal-UNLV winner will face fourth-seeded Syracuse or No. 13-seed Montana on Saturday.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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