BERKELEY Cal 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 Bears (20-11) 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 airball and scored on a short hook shot with 1.2 seconds remaining for a 76-75 victory. If Cal avenges that loss, it will 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 (season) 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 Pacific-12 Conference Player of the Year.
The opening-round match- up seems far more maneuverable this season.
The Bears bounced out of the Big Dance in the first round last March, falling to fellow No. 12 seed South Florida 65-54 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 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 an 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 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.
Montgomery has produced three of the last four Pac-12 Players of the Year Crabbe, Jorge Gutierrez (2012) and Jerome Randle (2010) but has failed to lead a deep run in the tournament in his first four years at Cal.
Besides last season's early exit, 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 magic at Stanford over 18 years including a Final Four appearance in 1998 just hasn't taken shape in March across the bay at Cal yet and he knows it.
"You play for five months. You work so hard to earn the right to be in this tournament. And we've done that, and that's a credit to the kids," Montgomery said. "And now we've got this opportunity to go out and hopefully we can take advantage of it. This is where you kind of make or break. You can really do some things if you can advance through the tournament."