Almost exactly one year ago, the Cal men’s basketball team played Arizona to within an inch of their lives.
Overtime after overtime, the two teams slugged each other. After 54 minutes, Wildcat guard MoMo Jones finally hit the go-ahead bucket, laying in two points to cap his 27-point night.
“That was a heartbreaker,” said Cal forward Harper Kamp, who scored a career-high 33 points in the three-overtime, 107-105 loss. “Gotta have this one on Thursday, man. Get this bitter taste out of my mouth.”
Many things bode well for Cal (17-5, 7-2 in the Pac-12) on Thursday at 8 p.m., when it will again tip off against the Wildcats at Haas Pavilion.
Arizona entered this season ranked No. 16 in the country despite being without Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams, whom the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted No. 2 overall. Gone too is diminutive but brash Jones, who transferred to Iona College in New York to be closer to his ill grandmother.
The Wildcats’ roster was supposed to be replenished by a superlative recruiting class, one headlined by five-star point guard Josiah Turner. Ranked fourth in the nation and tops in the conference, the haul helped Arizona (14-8, 5-4) receive 11 first-place votes in the preseason media poll, good for third in the Pac-12.
The projections haven’t panned out. Turner has struggled with off-court issues, losing his starting job at the beginning of the season and sitting out games with conduct suspensions. The Sacramento native hasn’t backed up his on-court hype either, averaging 7.3 points and 2.2 rebounds — paltry numbers for someone heralded as a pure point guard. His team’s results have been similarly lackluster, mired in a three-way tie for fourth in the Pac-12.
On the bright side, forward Solomon Hill has emerged as an all-conference talent, recording career highs with 28 points and 11 rebounds in his team’s most recent loss to Washington. The 6-foot-6 junior is the conference’s second-leading rebounder, and plays with the sort of athleticism that embodies the Wildcats’ style of play this season.
“Everybody in this league presents a different set of problems for us,” said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. “They don’t have a pure center … They can get five away from the basket, which has been a little bit of a problem for us.”
The Bears have been bothered by athletic big men this season — most recently being abused by Stanford’s frontcourt in the first half of their Sunday win — but Arizona’s depth took a major hit when forward Kevin Parrom broke his foot, making him done for the season. A versatile threat who dropped 25 points on Cal last year, Parrom’s absence will force the Wildcats into more three-guard sets.
There’s also more at stake than just a grudge match. Cal may be the Pac-12’s most attractive March Madness candidate, but it doesn’t have the kind of nonconference wins that stand out to the selection committee. Every win will bolster the Bears’ seeding resume heading into their last nine regular season games.
The Bears’ immediate task is to defend their perfect home record, particularly given how rare road wins are for all the teams in the league.
“I just don’t think there are any vastly superior teams that are able to go on the road and dominate,” Montgomery said. “People know they have to win at home, so it’s difficult to win on the road … Nobody’s so good that they’re able to just go out and roll over people.”