Cal men’s basketball to take on East Bay rival in St. Mary’s

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Ethan Epstein/File

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After breaking a three-game losing streak Tuesday with a win over California State University, Northridge (1-5), the Cal men’s basketball team (3-4) will face St. Mary’s (5-2) on Saturday with a bit more confidence.

The last time the Bears and the Gaels met was back in the 2015 season, when Cal walked away with a close win, 63-59. St. Mary’s had four of its current starters play in the game, including redshirt senior Calvin Hermanson, junior Evan Fitzner, senior center Jock Landale and redshirt senior point guard Emmett Naar. The Bears took advantage of the Gaels’ turnovers, claiming the lead in the final two minutes and holding on for the win.

Saint Mary’s comes into the matchup having lost two close matchups, one to Washington State by five points and the next in a nail-biter two-point overtime affair with Georgia. The team, however, is still receiving votes in the national poll, and their dynamic duo of Landale and Naar should put a fright into all opposing defenses. Landale is averaging 20 points per game, and Naar has been an efficient distributor, averaging nine assists and shooting above 50 percent from the field.

Cal rolled out a new scheme on the offensive end in its win against CSUN, but the small-ball approach the Bears rolled out against CSUN may not be as effective against a Gaels team loaded with talented big men.

That’s not to say the small-ball didn’t work against the Matadors. Cal has struggled in past games with speed and scoring, but head coach Wyking Jones’ decision to start a smaller and quicker team led to more opportunities on offense. By maintaining this strategy throughout the game, the Bears walked away with a season-high in field goals made (30) as well as blocked shots (11). If Cal maintains this strategy against St. Mary’s, it might be able to break past the solid defense the Gaels have put up thus far.

The Bears went with a smaller lineup, opting to bench senior center Kingsley Okoroh in lieu of starting freshman guard Juhwan Harris-Dyson. Harris-Dyson had a solid game, scoring 10 points on five shot attempts, but the biggest difference was simply in the type of offense they were able to operate without having two nonshooting big men down low. The change seemed to put some more life into the Cal offense, and their 83 points were helped along by a sweet 43 percent mark from deep.

“It opened up the floor,” Jones said after the game. “It opens up the passing lanes and the floor for our guys who are very good at penetrating; it allows those guys more room to maneuver. It also allows for (Okoroh) and (Lee) to not be as congested when they get the ball in the post.”

The Bears also showcased a wide range of talent. Freshman Darius McNeill was undoubtedly the driving force on offense against CSUN with a career-high 22 points and fellow freshman Justice Sueing has averaged 13.6 points per game, the second-highest amount on the team behind junior Don Coleman.

Alongside these skilled freshmen are the veterans. Coleman has hit double digits in points in every game, and Okoroh has continued to be a lockdown defender. Senior Marcus Lee is the most efficient shooter from the field with a field goal percentage of .527, and he leads the team with 8.9 rebounds per game.

St. Mary’s enters the game as losers of two straight, and they will not be easily swept under the rug. The Gaels have had the same five starters for all seven games, meaning they have nailed down a strategy that almost consistently brings in wins.

Naar is ranked second in the NCAA for assists per game with nine per game, and Landale leads the team with a field goal percentage of .648.

Cal’s central problem this season has been capitalizing on its offensive opportunities. St. Mary’s defense has been formidable, and if Cal isn’t able to capitalize on their offensive chances on Saturday, then they’ll be down another loss.

Sophie Durham covers men’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected].