Like a skydiving Tom Petty, the Cal men’s basketball team is in the midst of an epic free fall. After starting conference play with an unblemished 5-0 record, the Bears have dropped their last three games in a spectacularly frustrating fashion. First, a loss to then-winless USC, likely the worst team in the Pac-12. Next, a double-digit loss to UCLA that saw Cal climb back to within two points from a 19-point deficit only to fall apart in the final minutes.
And then there was Wednesday night’s debacle. The Bears, in their trademark way, found themselves down by double digits early in the first half to an underdog Arizona State squad. The deficit stretched to 16 at one point in the second half. Just as it had in the UCLA game, Cal (14-7, 5-3 Pac-12) clawed its way back, finally taking the lead with less than a minute in the game on a Justin Cobbs layup. The furious comeback gave way to an even more disastrous collapse, allowing the Sun Devils to tie up the game in regulation on a wide-open three pointer and eventually keeling over in overtime.
The press conference brought a palpably dejected Justin Cobbs mumbling into the microphone and an unusually curt head coach Mike Montgomery abandoning his normally loquacious ways. The overtime loss seemed like a breaking point of sorts.
“Emotionally, we have a hard time when things go wrong,” Montgomery said. “We have a hard time adjusting and reacting to that.”
After such an emotionally volatile and ultimately disappointing result, it follows that the Bears ought to rebound with a strong performance and victory in their next game. That narrative might not hold up so well: Cal’s next contest comes against the top team in the country — No. 1 Arizona (21-0, 8-0) — at Haas Pavilion on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The Wildcats have yet to lose a game this season, although they came close Wednesday night against Stanford. Arizona needed to surmount a seven-point second-half deficit against the Cardinal to maintain its untarnished record and even found itself tied with less than a minute left.
Stanford exposed a vulnerability in the Wildcat offense the Bears seem somewhat equipped to replicate. Although it keyed another suffocating defensive performance — 0.88 points allowed per possession — Arizona’s quartet of frontcourt players (Brendon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) shot just 8-for-30 from the field, struggling with the length and athleticism of the Cardinal interior. The Wildcats rank second in the country in defensive efficiency, but their most talented players — Gordon and Ashley — are prone to bouts of inconsistency.
Cal debatably boasts an even more effective interior defensive duo in Richard Solomon and David Kravish. Solomon and Kravish have fallen off a bit in this recent rough patch after a strong start to conference play. Both of the Bears’ forwards still rank among the conference leaders in block percentage. They demonstrated their potency inside in Cal’s 96-83 victory over Oregon on Jan. 9, locking down the Ducks’ star forward, Mike Moser, to just 3-of-12 shooting inside the three-point line. A return to that level of stinginess offers the Bears their best chance to deploy their parachute and end their rapid descent towards mediocrity.