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.
The journey from its home at Haas Pavilion to the neutral site at HP Pavilion in San Jose is only about 50 miles south down Interstate 880. The short distance will allow Cal to keep its usual practice schedule, avoid changing time zones and rest a whole lot more.
"We're excited about the location. It just makes logically everything so much easier," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "We've got our work cut out for us, but it just seems so much more manageable."
For the second selection Sunday in a row, there were some nervous moments in Berkeley.
Cal rolled off seven straight wins before losing at home to rival Stanford in the regular-season finale and needed to play well in the Pac-12 tournament to ensure an NCAA invite. Instead, the Bears were upset by Utah in the first round and had to wait three anxious days to find out they earned the at-large bid.
Adding to the uncertainty, the CBS television broadcast announced Pac-12 tournament champion Oregon as a No. 12 seed in the Midwest Region. After about 10 quiet minutes, Cal finally learned its fate, leading to light cheers — and maybe a few exhales felt — around the athletic offices that surround Haas Pavilion.
"There was some apprehension, I suppose, when Oregon got a 12 (seed)," Montgomery said. "I'm thinking, 'Uh-oh. There could be some question mark there."'
An even more difficult task now awaits Cal: proving it belongs among the big boys.