It sucks when the bad guys win, and right now, the Pac-12 doesn’t look like it’ll settle for a happy ending.
The University of Arizona comes into Haas Pavilion this Saturday night as the first-place team in the conference, albeit with a scandalous piece of news hanging over the team as it looks to battle the Bears.
Earlier this week, former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors as part of a larger FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. Richardson is accused of accepting more than $20,000 in bribes to steer players toward particular financial advisers and business managers once they turned pro.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller has refused to comment on the case, and it appears likely that he’ll escape the scandal largely unscathed, apart from losing an assistant coach and his general reputation as a “good guy.”
Meanwhile, on the court, Cal (5-10) is looking to snap a four-game losing streak as it prepares to host the dangerous Wildcats (12-4).
Arizona, while not as star-studded as in years past, still has a roster far more talented than Cal’s. Led by talented scorers Brandon Randolph and Chase Jeter, Arizona plays tough defense and tries to control the game on the offensive end with free throws and playing through its bigs.
Jeter, who is one of their big men, is an efficient low-post scorer who controls the boards and helps set the tone for the Wildcats. The undersized Bears have struggled with defending low-post scorers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Jeter continued that troubling trend.
Randolph is Arizona’s leading scorer (16.6 PPG) and a traditional slasher who gets to the rim and to the free-throw line, where he shoots at an extremely impressive 91 percent clip.
Four-star recruit Brandon Williams has played well but has struggled to shoot the ball consistently. He’s a good defender and dangerous enough to demand respect on offense, so he, too, could cause trouble for Cal’s wings.
The Wildcats’ other two starters, guards Justin Coleman and Emmanuel Akot are solid but unremarkable defenders who are not focal points on the offense. That could change, however, against the Bears’ underperforming defense. Off the bench, stretch center Ryan Luther and backup point guard Dylan Smith round out the rest of the regular rotation.
What Cal needs to do to win
A lot of Cal’s potential success will depend on whether point guard Paris Austin returns from an injury that has kept him out of the past two games. Austin has been a floor general for the Bears this season, getting teammates open shots and providing valuable senior leadership and a scoring lift whenever Cal’s wings are struggling to put the ball in the basket.
Without him, Cal has to rely on the talented but untested freshman Matt Bradley and sophomore Darius McNeill, who is more comfortable playing without the ball, anyway.
Austin limits turnovers and plays with confidence, two key elements to any upset victory.
On the defensive end, the Bears will have to limit Jeter if they have want to have any hope of defeating the Wildcats. Cal has struggled mightily against big men in general this season. From Seattle University’s Myles Carter to USC’s Nick Rakocevic and UCLA’s Moses Brown, Cal has been eaten alive by low-post scorers and unsurprisingly lost all three games because of the aforementioned opponents. Be prepared to add Jeter to the list if Arizona manages to score a road victory against the Bears.
I’d like to see a combination of 7’3” Connor Vanover and 6’8” Andre Kelly to help mitigate Jeter, but Cal head coach Wyking Jones seems reluctant to use this duo because of Vanover’s limited conditioning and the fear that this lineup clogs the lane for the Bears’ backcourt.
Led by Austin, Cal controls the tempo of the game and manages to get Jeter in foul trouble while converting from the free-throw line, as Cal has done all season. McNeill has a breakout game, hitting multiple 3-pointers and finding teammates such as Vanover and Bradley thanks to the attention he draws on the perimeter.
Cal secures its first conference victory and Jones’ first signature victory.
Jeter and Randolph have career highs, dominate the paint and get the Bears into foul trouble. Austin misses yet another game, and the Bears struggle to establish a rhythm on offense.
The FBI implicates Oski in its corruption investigation.
Arizona wins by 15.
P.S. I hope I’m wrong.
Rory O’Toole covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].