The Cal men’s basketball team and its arch-rival could be a study in opposites.
The Bears have six active players who average double-figure minutes per game. Stanford has 10.
Cal is led by a defensive-minded senior guard. Stanford, a freshman shooter who has taken 100 3-pointers already this season.
Mike Montgomery is a grizzled veteran in his 32nd year as a head coach. Johnny Dawkins, in his fourth year as a head coach, still looks like he could suit up and play a few minutes.
Yet despite the disparity in the recipe, when the squads face off at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday in Haas Pavilion, first place in the Pac-12 could be on the line.
The Bears (16-5, 6-2 in the Pac-12) were picked to finish second in the conference, so their current first-place rank in the standings is no surprise. The Cardinal (15-5, 5-3), on the other hand, were coming off a sub-.500 season and were supposed to be right smack in the middle of a mediocre Pac-12.
Stanford is off to its best start since the 2007-08, which resulted in a Sweet Sixteen berth and two first-round picks in the NBA Draft. Even after getting swept up in Washington last weekend, the Cardinal are still in third place in the conference; with a win on Saturday, they could sneak into first.
“I definitely feel that they’re probably better than what a lot of people thought,” Cal sophomore Allen Crabbe said. “They’ve definitely proved a lot of people wrong, and they’re just playing great team basketball.”
It starts with Stanford’s dynamic point guard-power forward combination. Aaron Bright has brought stability to a position that’s been unfulfilled of late. The 5-foot-11 sophomore is averaging more than 12 points a game and shooting nearly 80 percent from the foul line, an impressive feat for a team that makes less than two-thirds of its free-throw attempts.
“I think he’s just confident,” Montgomery said. “He’s a good shooter. Guys are gonna improve from high school to college and from college to the second year. He made a lot of shots in big situations, and he’s got a nice handle.”
Josh Owens is the focal point of the offense, often the first option as Bright brings the ball up. The athletic senior shoots over 60 percent from the field to yield a team-high 13.1 points per game. He’ll be matched up with the Bears’ own senior, Harper Kamp, who has come on strong of late, scoring in double figures in three of the last four games after a slow offensive start to the season.
The final piece to the Cardinals’ offensive trifecta is the aforementioned freshman sharp-shooter, Chasson Randle. Tasked to defend the guard who sunk five 3-pointers in last Thursday’s loss will likely be the previously mentioned gritty Cal senior. Jorge Gutierrez does a little bit of everything — 14.3 points per game, 5.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists — but shutting down opponents’ best guards might be what he does best. Case in point: six weeks ago, Gutierrez held the nation’s leading scorer, Weber State’s Damian Lillard, to a 4-for-17 shooting effort.
Sunday is about more than Bay Area bragging rights — it’s about getting back on a winning track. Both teams came away from last weekend with losses — Cal lost by just two points to Washington State on Saturday, and Stanford was swept.
When the first half of Pac-12 play comes to a close on Sunday, they’ll be looking for the same thing.
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