After loss to UCLA, Cal basketball hosts USC

Tony Zhou/File

Related Posts

The Cal men’s basketball team has turned starting out slowly into a twice weekly pattern. But now, the Bears are ready to kick the habit.

“We’re gonna come out and be aggressive,” said Cal point guard Justin Cobbs. “The main thing is to come out with energy.”

Unfortunately for Cobbs, he said that before Cal’s battle with UCLA on Wednesday night. In that matchup, the Bears hardly came out with energy. The closest Cal came to catching the Bruins was when the score was tied at 0-0. Otherwise, the Bears never led and were down by 12 at the end of the first half. By the final buzzer, another slow start had sunk the Bears, 86-66.

“(The players) seem to be uncomfortable with the idea that this is a big deal, and they get nervous,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. “We get ourselves in the hole. We make a mistake early, then the next guy makes a mistake, and then the next guy makes a mistake, and the next thing you know, we all make a mistake.”

Now, like a smoker trying to quit, the Bears (17-9, 8-5 Pac-12) will attempt to go cold turkey on their habit of making early mistakes yet again.

At 5 p.m. Sunday, Cal will battle a USC team that has just one conference win — which it earned against the Bears on Jan 22. In that game, Cal started out with one of its early deficits, down by as many as 13 in the first half. As has happened so often this season, the Bears’ subsequent rally fell short, and the Trojans (10-15, 1-11) got a brief reprieve from life in the Pac-12 gutter.

Sunday’s tilt, then, is not just a chance for the Bears to prove their signature slow starts are behind them but also a chance at revenge against a Trojan team that embarrassed them just one short month ago. At the time, it was a complete shock — Cal had won each of its first five Pac-12 matches — but now that loss looks like just the most ugly example in a well-established pattern of slow starts and failed rallies.

To make this outing a success, the most pressing concern for the Bears will be Byron Wesley, USC’s leading scorer. The junior guard averages about seven more points per game than the next highest-scoring Trojan and also leads the team in rebounds. Wesley is a shifty guard who gets most of his points by making his way into the paint and toward the rim.

But the Trojans rank second to last in the conference in both offensive and defensive efficiency. USC also turns the ball over more than any Pac-12 team and is the worst 3-point-shooting team in the conference.

Despite the result a month ago, Cal will be a heavy favorite in Sunday’s matchup. And the Bears need the win. With the loss to UCLA, Cal is essentially eliminated from contending for a Pac-12 regular-season title. But with the competitiveness of the conference, the Bears still need the win to stay in the hunt for an NCAA berth.

“It’s huge,” said freshman guard Jordan Mathews. “Every game in this conference is big. You win one, you move up a slot. You lose, you drop four or five spots.”

Riley McAtee covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee