It's hard to determine what is going to be tougher for the Cal women's basketball team - its initial portion of the Pac-12 schedule or its eventual NCAA Tournament draw.
The seventh-ranked Bears (10-1) begin conference play Friday night at Utah, the first of a grueling eight-game stretch to kick off the Pac-12 season. Seven of Cal's first eight conference opponents have a combined record of 39-5. Five of those games will come against teams ranked in this week's Associated Press top 20.
"We start out with the toughest schedule of anyone," Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "If you look at the conference right now, we're playing eight of the toughest ten games right off the bat. We need to be ready when it's conference play. We've had a really good week of practice. I think the players are in a really good mindset, knowing how hard this opening stretch is."
After playing the 9-2 Utes, the Bears must play Sunday at No. 20 Colorado, which enters Pac-12 play at 11-0. Then it's back home to play No. 4 Stanford on Tuesday at Haas Pavilion, followed by a rematch with the Cardinal in Palo Alto the following Sunday.
After a home game against USC, the Bears host No. 16 UCLA and then welcome Colorado and Utah to Haas Pavilion.
"It's as much about hating to lose and wanting to win as it is about tactics," Gottlieb said. "One thing this team does really well is stay in the moment. I've never had a hard time motivating them for a nonconference game as they may be look ahead to a bigger school. It's no different in conference. They totally realize that a win on the road at the beginning of conference is as big as a Stanford game or a UCLA game in three weeks."
The Bears have proven they are ready for this tough stretch to commence. Their only blemish is a loss at No. 4 Duke, and they have quality wins over Georgetown and Kansas. It's the best start in program history.
But winning the Pac-12 is the ultimate benchmark for a program now among the nation's elite. And that quest starts this weekend in challenging fashion.
"I think it was appropriate to take time to tell them that they earned the best start in program history," Gottlieb said. "That's a great achievement, but none of them are satisfied with that. Now, it's the second season. They know this is a whole different animal now that we're in the Pac-12. There's no question that we've re-focused on that and put the first part of the season behind us."