There’s a four-way tie for third place in the Pac-12, and two of those teams will face off this weekend.
The Cal men’s basketball team (18-10, 9-6 Pac-12) is tied with Arizona State, Stanford and Colorado for that third place spot. And third place in the Pac-12 is coveted, because only the top four teams receive a bye when the Pac-12 Championships roll around March 12. Barring a cataclysmic meltdown from either Arizona or UCLA, only two of those four third-place teams will get byes.
“There’s no player right now that’s not feeling it,” said Ricky Kreklow after Cal’s win over USC on Sunday. “It’s a long season. Every day you can get to rest is big in the long run, especially this late.”
When the Bears travel to Arizona State (20-8, 9-6) on Saturday, both have a chance to gain significant separation from the rest of the conference.
The last time these two teams met, the Sun Devils needed a 3-point shot from Jermaine Marshall with 19 seconds left to force overtime. Once in the extra period, the Bears collapsed, and Arizona State ran away with an 89-78 win. It was the final loss in a three-game losing streak before the Bears upset Arizona days later.
For the Bears to win on Saturday, they will need to contain Marshall and Jahii Carson, the Sun Devils’ shifty guard who assisted Marshall on that game-tying three. Marshall, a senior who transferred from Penn State for this season, knocked down 22 points for the Sun Devils in that win. Carson put up 29 points and tacked on 7 assists, with 11 of his points coming in overtime to bury the Bears. For Cal to take down Arizona State this time, stopping those two guards will be the first order of business.
And the Bears may have to take on the Sun Devils without freshman guard Jordan Mathews. Mathews left Cal’s loss to Arizona on Wednesday with what appeared to be an injury to his left ankle.
“I don’t know,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery when asked about Mathews condition after that game. “It looked painful, but typically, sprained ankles are.”
Mathews has been wildly inconsistent for the Bears this season. He averages 8.8 points per game, but he had seven in just 11 minutes of gametime before going down Wednesday.
Mathews was thrust into the starting lineup early in the year when both Ricky Kreklow and Jabari Bird went down with injuries. But both those players have since returned and Kreklow, a junior, has reclaimed his place among the starters. Kreklow is arguably the best shooter on the team, with a 39.3 percent 3-point shooting mark surpassed only by Jeff Powers.
If the Bears can top Arizona State, it will not just be another Pac-12 win — it will fundamentally shift their position in the conference. A loss will put Cal in a position where it will have to battle uphill the rest of the way, but a win will secure the Bears the ability to control their own destiny when it comes to getting one of those coveted byes.