BERKELEY — California feels a lot different about a second straight No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament than it did a year ago.
This time, it feels at home.
The Golden Bears (20-11) barely made the field again Sunday but will play one fewer game and travel a far shorter distance. They will face fifth-seeded UNLV (25-9) in San Jose on Thursday in a rematch from earlier this season.
"It's basically a home game," guard Justin Cobbs said.
The Runnin' Rebels beat the Bears in Berkeley on Dec. 9, when 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. If Cal avenges that loss, it would play the winner of fourth-seeded Syracuse and No. 13 Montana on Saturday.
The East Region's round of 16 and the quarterfinals will be in Washington, D.C. Cal's bracket also includes No. 1 seed Indiana and No. 2 seed Miami.
"We've been criticized this whole year — we're soft, we can't compete with top athletic teams and stuff. But it's time for us to make a name for ourselves, that we can compete not just against the top teams in our conference, but in the country," said guard Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
The opening-round matchup seems far more maneuverable this season.
The Bears bounced out of the Big Dance in the first round last March, falling 65-54 to fellow No. 12 seed South Florida after going down 36-13 at the half in Dayton, Ohio. The Bulls earned a spot in the field of 64 with that win.
"I think a year ago we were excited to get in, but we didn't play like it," Cobbs said.