In a league without a big dog, maybe Cal is the best the Pac-12 could offer otherwise: the most tenacious and savvy puppy of the litter, stumbling to be first out of the whelping box.
After sweeping a road trip in Los Angeles last week, the Golden Bears (20-6, 10-3) might boast the best résumé in a conference that still lacks a single victory against a Top 25 team.
They'll have a chance to improve on it Thursday, at home against fellow contender Oregon.
"They've got good players, and they're well-coached," Ducks coach Dana Altman said. "And that's a good combination."
Cal is tied for first with Washington and owns the head-to-head tiebreaker.
With three weeks of regular-season play remaining, the Golden Bears boast a defensible NCAA tournament résumé. Consider:
• Cal's RPI sits at No. 36, with the next-closest Pac-12 team, Washington, at No. 62. The Golden Bears have had the league's best RPI score each week since the NCAA began releasing them Jan. 2.
• The Pac-12's top seven teams - Cal, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Stanford and UCLA - are 39-9 at home in league play. Cal is responsible for three of those home losses - at Oregon on Jan. 8, at Washington on Jan. 19 and at UCLA on Saturday.
• Cal's three nonconference losses came to sure-fire NCAA tournament teams: Missouri, albeit by 39, in Kansas City, Mo.; at San Diego State by one; and at UNLV by 17.
Pac-12 coaches Tuesday praised the Golden Bears' steady play, crediting veterans for the team's 4-2 road record in conference play.
"It's amazing to see how consistent they are from game to game," said Oregon State coach Craig Robinson. "It's hard to play against them any time, let alone on the road."
USC coach Kevin O'Neill said the "veteran team" manages to "play well away from home, which I think is key if you're trying to win the league."
O'Neill said Washington, Arizona and Cal "are the top three" in the league. The conference champ, he said, is "going to be whoever's veterans play the best."
The Golden Bears boast only two seniors, but they're good ones - forward Harper Kamp and guard Jorge Gutierrez, the latter of whom Altman called "an NBA player."
Cal coach Mike Montgomery said he has fewer "seniors than a lot of people in the league," but a good attitude.
"Having guys that are tough-minded helps, wherever you play," he said.
The Golden Bears, seeded No. 9 by ESPN.com "Bracketology," handed the Bruins their first home conference loss Thursday.
UCLA coach Ben Howland called Kamp "a really unheralded guy" - and voted him all-conference last year - and blamed his own team's slumps during an 18-4 Cal run.
"I think their guard play is very, very good, and I think their big guy is underrated," Howland said. "They really pass the ball well … they really take advantage any time you have to help at all defensively … and they're tough."
That's another good combination, especially in a league without a signature talent, or team, this year.
"There's a lot of guys pulling on the rope right now," Montgomery said.