Bears to experience test from San Diego State backcourt on the road

The Cal basketball team just can’t stay close.

In the No. 24 Bears’ six wins, they have averaged a 21-point margin of victory. In the final of the CBE Classic over a week ago, they lost to No. 13 Missouri by 39.

The embarrassing loss in Kansas City, Mo., was one of only two games Cal (6-1) has played away from Haas Pavilion this fall. This Sunday, the team has a chance to bump up its road record with a 2 p.m. tilt at San Diego State.

“A real good team on the road like Missouri, well, how do we handle, how do we react to that?” head coach Mike Montgomery said. “San Diego State, it’s still a big deal for them to play us … It’s going to be a real competitive game from the standpoint of their preparation, their motivation.”

The Aztecs (7-2) hover just a few spots outside the AP poll, and would likely love nothing more than to swap spots with the visiting Pac-12 squad. Last week, they helped knock No. 24 Arizona out of the polls completely with a 61-57 win in Tucson, Ariz. — a game sandwiched by overtime victories over Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara.

The string is part of an impressive start for Steve Fisher’s squad, which entered the season with plenty of question marks. The longtime head coach guided the program to a 34-win season and a Sweet Sixteen appearance last spring, the best finish in San Diego State history.

A mass exodus muffled the celebration, as star forward Kawhi Leonard jumped to the NBA and three other starters graduated. If the roster misses them, the results haven’t showed.

Both members of the backcourt are scoring over 16 points per game, more than Leonard did a year ago as the team’s leader. Junior guard Chase Tapley has been deadly from long range, sinking half of his 3-point shot attempts, while sophomore guard Jamaal Franklin as emerged as a spark off the bench.

Fisher has also recharged the team by practically looting other programs: Six players started their collegiate careers elsewhere, and only one of them is a JUCO transfer. Starting foward Garrett Green, for example, played three seasons and redshirted another at LSU. Starting point guard Xavier Thames, the Aztec’s third-leading scorer, started four games for Washington State before transferring down south.

“San Diego State’s found a niche in that they’ve gotten kickbacks,” Montgomery said. “They almost recruit to get guys that are bounce-backs … They’re comfortable with that.”

The trip to Viejas Arena will also test Cal’s mettle. The Bears have had the luxury of friendly home crowds; in their latest win over McNeese State — a team that had to travel from Lake Charles, La. — they missed a number of close dunks and lay-ups, inducing groans but no jeers.

“When you’re on the road, you try to dunk the ball and you don’t get it, the crowd just gets all over you. It can really be a momentum changer,” Montgomery said. “I want guys to take shots they can make. It’s about as simple as that.”

Correction(s):
An earlier version of this article stated that San Diego State forward Garrett Green played one season and redshirted another at LSU. In fact, played three seasons and redshirted one.