On Wednesday morning — only barely awake — the Cal men’s basketball team boarded a plane for its second Pac-12 road trip. Alaska Airlines flight No. 357, headed to Seattle for a Thursday evening bout with Washington.
Either fittingly or ominously, the 5:30 p.m. tipoff will be at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Coincidence aside, the Huskies are renowned for one of the harshest home crowds in the West — one that has just been revived by a thrilling 75-65 win against Washington State on Sunday.
After shooting 29 percent in the first half to trail 31-25, the Washington offense awoke behind swingman Terrence Ross’ 28 second-half points. Played before the first sellout crowd of the season, the game may have been a turning point for the talented but inconsistent squad.
If so, the Bears (15-4, 5-1 in the Pac-12) could be in trouble.
Already without backup guard Brandon Smith (concussion), Cal will spend the rest of its season without Richard Solomon, a 6-foot-10 forward who was ruled academically ineligible Wednesday afternoon. A starter at the beginning of the season, Solomon had been suspended two games in December for undisclosed conduct violations and missed four games later that month with a stress fracture.
There aren’t many options for Cal to fill Solomon’s contributions — 6.0 points, 1.2 blocks and a team-high 6.2 rebounds. True freshman David Kravish has proved himself a capable player, but being thin in the frontcourt is a dangerous proposition against the best offensive rebounding team in the conference.
“They’re very, very physical, particularly at home, where they seem to get a little more leeway,” said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. “They get a lot of emotion from their crowd and have been very difficult for people to beat there.”
The Bears are currently perched atop the Pac-12, sitting side-by-side with Stanford a half-game ahead of Washington (11-6, 4-1). With the Cardinal also making the same Northwest trip, this weekend could potentially shake up the top of the order.
The league’s expansion to 12 teams also means that this will be Cal’s only chance to take on the Huskies.
Washington has traditionally boasted an athletic roster, and this season isn’t much of an outlier. Although it lost star guard Isaiah Thomas to the NBA, true freshman Tony Wroten has quickly become the second-leading scorer in the Pac-12.
And then there’s Ross, who can unleash a flurry of buckets at any moment. His career-high 30 points against the Cougars came despite a 1-of-9 outing in the first half.
“Ross is as good as there is in the league in terms of, when he gets going, he’s really, really good,” Montgomery said. “He can create a shot for himself and really shoot the ball.”
But Washington, like Cal, isn’t at full strength either. Guard C.J. Wilcox, the team’s second-leading scorer and its best shooter, is highly doubtful for the weekend’s games with a stress fracture in his femur. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said he hopes to have Wilcox back for the Jan. 26 game at Arizona State.
“One less shooter,” Montgomery said. “It’s one less place to go.”