Cal men’s basketball and No. 3 Arizona set for rematch

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Justin Cobbs' game-winner capped off Cal's upset over Arizona.

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Justin Cobbs’ shot is seared into the minds of Cal fans who were at Haas Pavilion on Feb. 1.

When Cobbs elevated above the outstretched arm of Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski, he hung patiently in the air, taking his time to line up the perfect shot before finally releasing the ball. Meanwhile, the crowd held its collective breath. The senior point guard faded so far away from Tarczewski that he fell to the floor, unable to regain his footing. Maybe he was just as mesmerized watching the ball arc through the air toward the hoop as the rest of Haas that he simply forgot to put his feet down.

As he landed, the ball touched the back of the rim to fall effortlessly through the hoop. Haas burst into an uproar.

Of course, the Wildcats have that shot seared into their minds too — but for an entirely different set of reasons. Cobbs’ heroics sent then-No. 1 Arizona home with its first loss of the season and turned college basketball on its head. Now, Arizona will finally have a chance for revenge.

The Bears (18-9, 9-5 Pac-12) will travel to Tucson, Ariz. to clash with the No. 3 Wildcats at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

“I suspect that they’ll be hunting for Bear,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery.

Arizona (25-2, 12-2) has had to battle through the rest of its games without talented forward Brandon Ashley, who went down with a season-ending injury in that contest against the Bears. But since then, the Wildcats have only lost one other game: a 69-66 double-overtime thriller to rival Arizona State on Feb. 14.

Even without Ashley, the rest of Sean Miller’s talented squad has picked up the slack. Arizona has held on to its distinction as arguably the best defensive team in the country, allowing just .869 points per possession — the best mark of any team. Players such as Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon help Arizona clog up the paint, making penetration for opposing offenses difficult. And on the outside, the Wildcats have TJ McConnell, a point guard who averages just under two steals per game.

While most of those players aren’t naturals on the offensive end — only Gordon is currently averaging double digits in points per game — high scoring has never been part of Arizona’s identity. And in the absence of Ashley, very little of the Wildcats’ defensive tenacity has been lost.

“Sean (Miller) has done a great job of coaching, teaching those guys how to defend,” Montgomery said. “They are very well-coached defensively, and they’ve got very athletic guys.”

But that doesn’t mean Arizona doesn’t know how to put the ball through the hoop. Nick Johnson averages 16 points per game for the Wildcats, a mark that ranks higher than any player for the Bears.

In that game earlier in February, the Bears held Johnson to 1-14 shooting and the Wildcats as a whole to 32 percent. Though Tarczewski was able to knock down 18 points, 12 of those came on free throws as the Bears emulated the same defensive intensity Arizona usually shows. The low scoring kept the game close enough for Cobbs to lift Cal with not only that final shot, but the Bears’ final 12 points.

Cal will need that same kind of effort if the Bears hope to compete with the Wildcats again. And the Bears need more than just Cobbs — a win will also take strong performances from the likes of David Kravish, Tyrone Wallace and Richard Solomon, all of whom had double digit points against Arizona last time.

Arizona has still only lost two games — one by a last second shot and the other in a double-overtime slugfest. Even if the Wildcats are hurting without Ashley, they are still among the best teams in the country and are comfortable atop the Pac-12.

“I’m expecting a high-intensity game there,” said freshman guard Jabari Bird. “I know they’re looking for revenge against us.”

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