Last week brought a rough couple of games for the Cal men’s basketball team. After losing 6-foot-10 center Richard Solomon to a corneal abrasion midway through the Maui Invitational, the Bears’ elite interior defense promptly imploded. Cal (6-2) allowed more than 1.2 points per possession in losses to Syracuse and Dayton, respectively; in all other games with Solomon, the team never allowed more than 1.04.
So it was a welcome surprise when Solomon returned in time to guard the monstrous 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye for the Bears’ latest game against UC Irvine. With Solomon back in the lineup, the Cal defense returned to its stingy ways, limiting the Anteaters to just 0.75 points per possession.
“I’m glad to have him back,” said head coach Mike Montgomery.
Solomon will play an instrumental role in slowing UC Santa Barbara’s ruthlessly efficient offense in its matchup with the Bears on Friday night at the Thunderdome in Santa Barbara. The Gauchos (3-3) rank in the top-20 teams in the country in both 2-point and 3-point field goal percentage, utilizing a motion-heavy offense with lots of ball movement to manufacture high-quality looks with regularity in the halfcourt.
Leading the UCSB charge is the country’s busiest player, Alan “Big Sauce” Williams. Williams tosses up a shot on 45 percent of his offensive possessions, leading the nation by a significant margin. Luckily for the Gauchos, Williams has been a bastion of efficiency; the burly forward averages 27.5 points per game on .596 shooting.
“Big Sauce” hasn’t just piled up stats on inferior competition, either. Williams poured on 23 points while facing constant double teams against a UCLA squad Tuesday and 39 in a win over a perennial NCAA Tournament team South Dakota State. The junior couples a bruising inside game with sharp midrange shooting, rendering him a tough matchup for any frontcourt.
Williams will be the ultimate test for Solomon and his “partner in crime” David Kravish on Friday night. Both Solomon and Kravish possess lanky frames. Williams, at 6-foot-7, weighs more than either of Cal’s 6-foot-10 forwards. Keeping the big man out of the paint may require constant double teams, freeing up the Gauchos’ sharpshooters on the perimeter for open looks if the ball movement is crisp enough.
“I wanted to get into a rhythm early and look for my shot,” said UCSB guard Kyle Boswell after the UCLA game. “It opens things up for Al (Williams) down low. I had a fun time, but we just fell short at the end.”
Boswell, a senior, and Michael Bryson serve as the main beneficiaries of Williams’ dominant play down low. Both hoist up more than five threes per game and convert them at a 45 percent rate.
Williams’ dominance isn’t limited to the offensive side of the floor. Despite giving two to three inches on most of his frontcourt opponents, “Big Sauce” averages three blocks per game, compensating for a relative lack of height with strength and positioning inside. These traits also serve him well on the glass; his 10.8 rebounds per game rank first among all Big West players.
The primary responsibility for containing all facets of the “Big Sauce” experience likely falls on Solomon, the leader of the defense and captain of the boards. The Bears couldn’t have timed his return better.
“It is nice to have (Solomon) back because he is such a great defender, and he takes the pressure off of the perimeter shooters because of what he can do inside,” Kravish said.