Cal has two indicators for success this season: the first half and Tyrone Wallace.
When the Bears control the first half of basketball games, they win. When they don't, they lose.
When Wallace has a good game, Cal wins. When he doesn't, Cal loses.
The Bears' 62-57 road victory over Utah on Thursday was a perfect example.
Certainly, Allen Crabbe's 23 points in his first efficient game in a while contributed to Cal's victory. So did the return of backup guard Brandon Smith, who had missed the previous six games because of a concussion but provided needed backcourt depth on Thursday to help the Bears improve to 11-7 overall and 3-3 in the conference.
But the telltale signs for Cal remain the first half and Wallace.
Wallace did not shoot a good percentage on Thursday, making only 4 of 15 shots, including 1-for-7 on three-pointers. But he finished with 12 points, eight assists and four rebounds along with just two turnovers. And it's no coincidence that the Bears won with him putting up those kind of numbers. In Cal's past seven games, including the six conference games, Cal is 0-4 when he scored eight points or fewer and 3-0 when he scored 10 points or more. He's averaging 3.5 points in those four losses and 12.7 in the three wins. He had six points, one assist and three turnovers against Stanford on Saturday, which is major reason the Bears lost that game by 10 points.
Certainly, Crabbe and Justin Cobbs are the Bears' chief offensive threats, and they will continue to be (even though Cobbs had just six points Thursday). But Wallace provides that critical third scorer when he contributes double-digit scoring. He has shown the inconsistency that many freshmen demonstrate, but if he can become a reliable point-producer the Bears may yet have something.
They will definitely have something if they play well in the first half. The Bears are now 11-0 when they lead at halftime and 0-7 when they trail at intermission. That's a fairly remarkable statistic, showing how important it is for a team with limited depth and limited scoring punch to get off to a good start so it can control tempo in the second half. When the Bears have to play catchup, they don't have the offensive firepower to overcome a deficit. When they're ahead, they can grind out a victory.
And the Bears put themselves in control with a 13-0 run midway through the first half against the Utes, who were coming off a road victory over Washington. Crabbe scored eight of those 13 points to give Cal a 19-11 lead.
Cal increased its lead to 10 points at halftime, and that was enough to weather a stretch of poor foul-shooting late in the game that helped the Utes get as close as three points with 55 seconds left. When Cal forward David Kravish missed a baseline jumper with 30 seconds left on the ensuing possession, it looked like Cal was in trouble. But the Bears collected a loose ball for a big offensive rebound on Kravish's miss and were able to put the game away when Crabbe hit a pair of free throws with 17 seconds to go.
Crabbe finished the game 4-for-6 on three-pointers, which is a significant turnaround. Not only have most recent opponents denied him an opportunity to take that many three-pointers in a game, but he had not been making the few opportunities he had. He was just 8-for-35 from long range over his past nine games, including 4-for-19 over his previous six games.
Certainly beating Utah, which is just 1-6 in the conference, does not indicate Cal is ready to challenge for the conference title. But the formula has become clear: win the first half and get a productive game from Wallace.