In first real season test, Cal men’s basketball faces No. 23 Syracuse

Patrick Chong/Staff

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While the men’s basketball team has already played two games this season, neither game has really tested the Bears. Both were blowouts that Cal won — the team beat Alcorn State 91-57 and Kennesaw State 93-59 — so the Bears don’t have much of a resume yet.

But on Thursday, the Bears take on No. 23 Syracuse at 6 p.m. at Madison Square Garden. The game will be the third year in a row that the two teams have met, Cal having lost the previous two games, including a 2013 matchup in the NCAA tournament game in San Jose.

“I’m ready to go,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. “I think (the guys) are ready to go … For us, it’s just playing the way we know how to play, being aggressive, being assertive. You’re going against one of the best teams in America … and I think it will be exciting for our guys and our fans.”

Both teams have undergone substantial roster changes since the last meeting, Cal having lost Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon and Syracuse having lost Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant to the pros and leading scorer CJ Fair to expired eligibility.

Last year, Ennis ran the show for the Orange, so his loss has created a gap the team and head coach Jim Boeheim need to fill — presumably with freshman Kaleb Johnson, the heir apparent to the point-guard role. Through two games, Johnson is the team’s leading distributer with 11 assists and is tied for the second-most minutes on the team but is only averaging 4.5 points per game.

Syracuse will return starters Rakeem Christmas — a senior forward, who is also a very talented defender — and junior guard Trevor Cooney, who has played the most minutes for the Orange. Cooney possesses an incredible range in terms of shooting, which made him one of the nation’s best marksmen last year. After Johnson, Christmas and Cooney, the Orange’s starting lineup also includes sophomore forward Tyler Roberson and freshman forward Chris McCullough.

Thus far, the Bears’ standout player has been junior guard Tyrone Wallace, who was recently named the Pac-12 Player of the Week. Wallace is leading the team in minutes, with 30.5, as well as in points per game, with 20, rebounds per game, with 9.5, and assists per game, with 5.5. Sophomore guard Jordan Mathews has also stepped up this year and is currently second on the team in points per game. Mathews has looked explosive so far this season and has settled down a bit after an unreliable freshman year.

Cal has felt like it could have beaten Syracuse the last two times the teams have played, so the Bears’ starting lineup is anxious to finally record that win. The Orange almost exclusively plays a zone, which Cal feels prepared to face.

“When we play that zone, we got to be patient,” Mathews said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who can score the ball — the key’s going to get in the high post to guys like Dwight (Tarwater), Tyrone, Dave (Kravish). You’ve got to get in the high post and play from there.”

Wallace, who has played in the last two games against Syracuse, also stressed the importance of playing a patient game and moving the ball home.

“We’re ready,” Wallace said. “We’re going to come out and play hard.”

Shannon Carroll covers men’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @scarroll43.