Cal men’s basketball tasked with slowing down No. 16 Arizona State’s high-octane offense

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Karen Chow/File

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There’s no sugar-coating it: The Cal men’s basketball team’s (7-12) inaugural season under head coach Wyking Jones is well on its way to being the program’s worst season since the turn of the millennium. Against No. 16 Arizona State (14-4, 2-4), a team starving to prove that its former ranking as the No. 3 team in the nation wasn’t a fluke, the task of salvaging wins and stopping the bleeding won’t be any easier.

After nine straight winning seasons — campaigns which have produced plenty of professional-level talent — the Bears are on pace for their first sub-.400 record since the 1991-92 season, even with one of their weaker schedules in recent memory.

Since Cal climbed back from a 17-point deficit against Stanford to kick off conference play, the team has played its worst basketball of the season, suffering beatdown after beatdown by the Pac-12’s elite, losing by an average margin of 19.4 points during its five-game losing streak.

While there’s certainly a case to be made against the Bears’ defense — they’ve allowed an average of 82.0 points per game during this stretch with opponents shooting a blistering 54.3 percent from the field and 49.6 percent from three — the offense has stacked up enough bricks to renovate South Hall.

In its past five games, Cal has only managed to put up 62.6 points per game, a figure inflated by the 84 points the team put up in its 23-point loss to UCLA. Erase that game against the Bruins, and Cal has averaged only 57.3 points against USC, Washington, Washington State and Arizona.

With a figure that low, it should come as no surprise that the Bears’ first-, second-, third- and fourth-lowest scoring performances have come in this stretch of basketball.

Who or what has been the culprit for the disappearance of Cal’s offense? Turnovers remain an issue, but the team hasn’t deviated too far from the norm. While the team is averaging 15.2 giveaways per contest over this stretch, a total that is far from desirable, it’s almost equal to their season average.

The main culprit, then, is the team’s shooting. During its losing streak, Cal is shooting a cringe-inducing 38 percent from the field, 27.8 percent from deep and, strangely enough, 63.8 percent from the charity stripe. Against the Trojans, Cougars and Wildcats, the Bears shot less than 40 percent from the field.

With the exception of freshman Justice Sueing, Cal’s core scorers — Sueing, fellow freshman Darius McNeill, junior Don Coleman and senior Marcus Lee — has shot considerably worse than their respective season averages.

The worst offender by far has been Coleman, who wasn’t exactly the model for efficiency to begin with. Before this stretch, Coleman shot 38.2 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from deep — horrible totals in and of themselves.

During this five-game losing streak, however, Coleman has managed to play even worse, shooting a mind-bogglingly low 22.9 percent from the field and 15.4 percent from deep while still taking almost 10 shots per game.

Cal’s sole glimmer of hope in this stretch of darkness has been Sueing, who has taken on an increased role and balled out. Aside from only making a little more than half of his shots at the free throw line, Sueing is topping his season averages in four of the five major statistical categories — points, rebounds, assists and steals. Against Washington, he dropped a career-high 27 points.

The Bears have a golden opportunity to instill some life into their offense, as the Sun Devils have one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12. Arizona State’s defense may be nothing to write home about, but to the tune of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns, the Sun Devils know how to score the basketball.

Arizona State has dropped 90+ points on its opponents’ heads nine times this season, two of which have eclipsed the century mark. Against an infamously bad Cal defense, the Bobby Hurley-led squad may be in for another field day.

For Cal, the only team in the Pac-12 without a winning overall record, the opportunities to rekindle the fire from its Stanford upset are few and far between. As Jones alluded earlier this season, the light at the end of the tunnel remains the focus.

This season? More than likely, not so much.

Justice delos Santos is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jdelossantos510

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