After an abysmal stretch of basketball, the Cal men’s basketball team (6-6) has finally fought its way back to a .500 record by way of a three-game win streak, and it’ll look to keep the good times rolling in the form of a win against Portland State (9-3) before an extended Christmas break.
Few teams have taken the motto “shooters shoot” to heart this season more than Portland State. Not only are the Vikings trigger-happy from beyond the arc, but the 3-point shot has been wetter than the waters the team’s namesake sailed. That is to say, when Portland State’s snipers pull up, they’re most likely making it, as the Vikings have knocked down the 11th-most 3-pointers in college basketball.
Portland State has cracked double-digits in 3-pointers made in a game eight times this season. In two of the four games in which the Vikings didn’t hit the double-digit mark, they managed to hit nine treys. Cal has faced a couple teams this season that can shoot the three-ball, but no opponent has been this deadly from outside the arc.
The Vikings’ sharpshooting has the potential to spell doom for the Bears, who have a subpar 3-point defense. Cal has managed to improve its defense of the trey since the beginning of the season, but the squad is still allowing opponents to hit 38 percent of threes.
Despite the current state of the 3-point defense, Cal is coming off one of its better defensive games defending the trey, holding Seattle to 7 of 32 from beyond the arc. Cal’s strong defense against Seattle was only a game removed from an equally strong defensive stand against San Diego State, holding the Aztecs to 6 of 28 from three. In their last three games, the Bears have held opponents to 30 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
A constant for Cal in those last three games has been senior Nick Hamilton. Beginning with the match-up against San Diego State, head coach Wyking Jones has opted for a starting five of Hamilton, freshmen Darius McNeill and Justice Sueing, junior Don Coleman and senior Marcus Lee.
On paper, the shift was a strange one; coming into that game against San Diego State, Hamilton only averaged 3.7 points per game in 14.6 minutes per game. Hamilton got the starting nod on opening night, but he was relegated to the bench in favor of Sueing.
With Hamilton in the starting lineup, however, Cal has played some of its best basketball of the season, both on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. Three games isn’t a big enough sample size to definitively say that the Bears play better with this new starting five — don’t forget that correlation doesn’t imply causation — but it’s difficult to argue with the results so far.
Cal’s latest starting five will have the task of slowing down Portland State’s senior Deontae North, who comes into Haas Pavilion averaging 20.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.
North has shined on the grandest of the grand stages this season, dropping 24 points against then-No. 1 Duke in 20 minutes off the bench. North has been an offensive threat all season for the Vikings, but the guard has especially hit his stride in the past three games, averaging 26.7 points on 54 percent shooting from the field.
Cal will counter on the offensive end with McNeill, who has posted 30 and 20 points against Cal State Fullerton and Seattle, respectively. McNeill is currently shooting 48 percent from beyond the arc this season and should he continue that pace, he’ll be the first freshman since Richard Midgley from the 2002-03 season to shoot better than 40 percent from three among qualifiers.
Off the bench, the Bears will look to Kingsley Okoroh, who has played noticeably better since Jones opted for a small-ball lineup and moved his 7’1” center to the bench. As a reserve, Okoroh has recorded more points and blocks per game while shooting 10 percent better from the field.
Okoroh’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus (an estimate of the defensive points per 100 possessions a player contributes, compared to an average player) of 4.3 is the second-best total on the Bears, just below Lee’s mark of 4.4.