SAN JOSE -- Mike Montgomery was joking…we think.
Upon rising from the dais following his media conference for this NCAA East Regional game at HP Pavilion, the Cal men's basketball coach turned to walk away before remembering his plastic cup.
"Can't forget my whiskey," he said with a laugh.
Of course, the cup was filled with water…right? But after the bizarre job the tournament's selection committee did in filling out its bracket, maybe it was imbibing in some moonshine.
No one here can recall a first-round matchup with as many strange circumstances as the ones surrounding this one between the Golden Bears (20-11) and Runnin' Rebels of UNLV (25-9).
For one, the two teams already met this season, UNLV pulling out a 76-75 victory at Haas Pavilion on a last-second outback of an airball. The committee generally tries to avoid rematches in the first round. Having Cal swap spots with the South's No. 12 seed, Akron, and shipping the Bears to Auburn Hills, would have alleviated it all.
Secondly, the Bears, despite being given a relatively low 12 seed, were "rewarded" with a virtual home game against a No. 5 seed in UNLV.
And lastly, and perhaps most inexplicable, while the 12th-seeded Bears were able to avoid traveling, a pair of 11 seeds in St. Mary's and Middle Tennessee State were forced to play a play-in game, in Dayton, Ohio. Say what?
As far as Cal is concerned, the Gods of March Madness smiled upon the Bears.
"It's actually good for us not going out of state and having to do too much traveling," said junior guard Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12's player of the year.
"I just feel like it's a 40‑minute drive, helped us out a lot -- we got to stay in our gym. So hopefully we get a good crowd from our fans, with it being so close to us. We were pretty excited when we saw we were playing in San Jose. Hopefully we can use this as one of our advantages to help us get a 'W' tomorrow."
So forgive the better-seeded Rebels, then, if they're scratching their heads over Cal's home cooking. It's only 47 miles from Haas to HP. Not that UNLV is going to publicly rail against its placement.
After all, the Rebels are only about an hour flight from home as well.
"It's great, close to Vegas, I'll say, so a lot of fans can come out," insisted forward Anthony Bennett, the Mountain West Conference's freshman of the year. "We don't have to travel that far. We don't have to worry about time difference or anything, we've just got to go out and play our game."
Added senior point guard Anthony Marshall: "Having the luxury of being so close to Vegas is very helpful, but at the same time it's kind of close to Cal. But we played them at home in December. It will probably be a little similar, but I feel like we'll have a lot more Rebel fans this time around."
It was on Dec. 9 when UNLV lost preseason honorable mention All-America forward Mike Moser to a dislocated right elbow five minutes into the game when Brandon Smith landed on his arm in a scramble for a loose ball. Crabbe got into early foul trouble and the Rebels led by seven at the half, 45-38.
Cal was terrible from the free-throw line that day, converting just 15 of 28 after being just three for 14 at one point.
Indeed, there were 13 ties and seven lead changes, and it all ended with Marshall's airball in the lane being put in for the game winner by senior forward Quintrell Thomas with 1.2 seconds to play.
UNLV, which out-rebounded Cal, 38-30, was led by sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones' career-best 22 points and a 25-point, 13-rebound tour de force by Larry Johnson-clone Bennett.
But as everyone associated with both teams says, these are two totally different teams from three-plus months ago.
"Both teams have gotten a lot better," Marshall said. "It was early on in the season where two teams were trying to find their identity, the right rotations, how they wanted to play..and I think both teams have come a long way and it's going to be a battle."
"We're the healthiest we've been all season long and the deepest we've been all season long. Cal has played terrific basketball in conference play. We thought they were good on December 9, but even better now. Just the year of experience, the explosiveness of their back court, the experience of their front court, provides a great and tremendous challenge for our program.
"While we know each other from a scouting standpoint, it will be different because both teams are playing at a much higher level now, and it will be a terrific college basketball game."
And no, Rice was not drinking from Montgomery's cup.
4:27 p.m. PT
No. 5-seed UNLV
25-9 overall, 10-6 in the Mountain West
Keep an eye on: Freshman forward Anthony Bennett (16.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg)
Best wins: New Mexico, San Diego State
Worst losses: Fresno State (twice)
No. 12 Cal
20-11 overall, 12-6 in the Pac-12
Keep an eye on: Junior guard Allen Crabbe (18.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Best wins: Arizona, UCLA
Worst losses: Utah
Winner gets: Winner of No. 4 Syracuse (26-9) vs. No. 13 Montana (25-6), on Saturday