The Cal men’s basketball team returns from Los Angeles looking to recover. The Bears’ 5-0 conference start has devolved into two straight losses, including one against a team that might be the worst in the Pac-12.
When Arizona State (15-5, 4-3 Pac-12) travels to UC Berkeley to take on the Bears (14-6, 5-2) at Haas Pavilion at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, it will give Cal the best chance to make up for those two losses before facing undefeated No. 1 Arizona on Sunday.
Through five games, every indication was that the Bears were a legitimately good team, a lock for the NCAA tournament and, if Cal got lucky, a potential challenger to Arizona for the conference. Cal upset rival Stanford to start Pac-12 play. Then the Bears trumped Oregon in a road shootout. They overcame an Oregon State team riding some unsustainable shooting from behind the arc. And the team established its strength by blowing out the Washington schools at home.
Then the Bears got thoroughly outplayed by USC, arguably the worst team in the conference, and had such a slow start against UCLA that the late game rally the Bears tried to mount was essentially doomed before it even began.
Cal’s issue over the last few games has been its defense. Though the Bears’ offense has scored below early season levels, the primary culprit in the last two losses has been the Bears’ play on the defensive end.
USC hit more than 51 percent of its shots in a game that the Bears never even came close to winning. Against UCLA, the Bears put up more of a fight but still allowed enough open jumpers off late transitions to see the Bruins shoot 55.6 percent from three-point range.
Arizona State will provide a litmus test for the Bears to determine whether the last two games are a fluke or if the team simply overachieved with its early 5-0 start. The Sun Devils are ranked 49th in RPI while the Bears clock in at 44, about as even as a matchup can get.
The Sun Devils will also give a chance for the Bears to return to the things they do best. Arizona State is a mediocre rebounding team, ranking last in the conference in rebounding margin. Cal, meanwhile, has rebounded well, with senior forward Richard Solomon averaging a 10.6 for the team.
And there’s even a chance that Cal can right the ship defensively. Arizona State is a relatively middle-of-the-road shooting team and is unlikely to replicate some of the more gaudy numbers from the USC and UCLA matchups.
While ASU isn’t the best at getting to the hoop, the team’s perimeter scoring is among the best in the Pac-12. Senior guard Jermaine Marshall leads the Sun Devils behind the arc, averaging 2.5 threes per game off 44.9 percent shooting. Jahii Carson and Jonathan Gilling also shoot better than 42 percent from deep.
That shooting bodes poorly for Cal, as the Bears have a habit of giving up big performances to the conference’s best shooting teams. In addition to UCLA’s strong night Sunday, Cal allowed Oregon State to also hit more than 50 percent from three. UCLA and Oregon State rank first and second in three-point shooting in the conference, while ASU comes in fourth.
The game may come down to Arizona State’s outside shooting. Cal is likely to crash the boards well after being outrebounded in its previous games, returning to its familiar territory of being able to take more shots than its opponents. But if Arizona State makes its shots count in the form of three-point attempts — something that appears likely given Cal’s season so far — the Bears’ advantage on the boards may not materialize in a win.