One victory in three games doesn’t exactly scream optimism, but the turn of the calendar has seen Cal men’s basketball take steps in the right direction — and its upcoming matchup with Utah provides the team with another opportunity to grow.
The Bears (8-17, 2-10) have faltered against plenty of teams which love to shoot the three-ball, and Utah is no exception. The Utes (13-9, 5-6) enter their matchup with the Bears as one of the best collectives of shooters in the Pac-12, draining around nine per game — good for the second-most per game in the conference.
Utah’s shooting from deep has the potential to spell doom for Cal as the Bears’ 3-point defense isn’t just one of the worst in the nation, but the worst in the Pac-12 by a large margin, allowing opponents to hit 40.4 percent of their threes.
By comparison, the second-worst defense in the Pac-12 is Arizona, which allows opponents to drop in treys at a clip of 36.7 percent — a figure that makes the Wildcats look like the 2004 Detroit Pistons by comparison.
Conference play hasn’t just seen Cal become subjected to two beatdowns per week, but it has also shown an even further regression in regards to defending the three.
To make up for the lack of rain in the Bay Area this winter, the Bears’ Pac-12 opponents have taken it upon themselves to make a splash, shooting a blistering 44.3 percent from beyond the arc as a collective.
In conference play, Cal has allowed its contemporaries to drain 10 or more 3-pointers five or more times, including UCLA’s barrage of 17 en route to dropping a light 107 points at Haas Pavilion.
The general of the Utes’ platoon is no one other than the guard with a Napoleon Bonaparte-esque chip on his shoulder.
Standing at 5’8” and weighing in at 150 pounds, Utah senior Justin Bibbins’ frame is more appropriate for him to become a junior middleweight than a starting point guard of a Division I basketball team, but Bibbins’ game packs one hell of a punch.
Not only is Bibbins the leader of Utah’s 3-point brigade, knocking down the shot at a clip of 43.6 percent, but he’s also the team’s leading scorer and playmaker. In 33.8 minutes per game, Bibbins is averaging 13.7 points and 5.0 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of 64.1 percent.
Bibbins has elevated his game since the beginning of conference play, putting up 15.4 points and 5.5 assists a night against conference opponents.
In Utah’s first conference game of the season, Bibbins drained five threes and scored a game-high 19 points against Oregon, and the Utes escaped Matthew Knight Arena with a road victory for the first time since 1951.
Stopping Bibbins won’t be as simple a matter as putting a larger defender on him, although Cal could exploit his lack of size on the defensive end.
It doesn’t help Cal that junior Don Coleman and freshman Darius McNeill — the two players who will likely be tasked with defending him — are the two worst-qualified defenders in the Pac-12 based on defensive box plus/minus.
The Bears have a stud of their own who has been balling out since the beginning of conference play in freshman Justice Sueing, but the forward comes into Jon M. Huntsman Center after his worst performance of the season.
Against Colorado, Sueing recorded only 6 points, which snapped his streak of games in which he’s hit double digits. Cal’s youngster had plenty of opportunities, but he only hit 1 of 15 shots from the field and missed all 10 of his 2-pointers.
Despite a very forgettable performance in Boulder, Sueing has still far and away been the Bears’ most consistent performer against Pac-12 opponents, averaging 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in conference play.