Cal men’s basketball to play Virginia in 2-game series

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The first-ever encounter between two highly touted sports teams always carries the potential to turn into an exciting fixture, and the Cal men’s basketball team will get that chance when it takes on Virginia, which Cal has scheduled a two-game series with, for the first time.

The Bears and the Cavaliers are set to begin their series Dec. 22 at Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Virginia, as announced by both programs Monday. Game 1 has the potential to be memorable, and spectators will have the opportunity to tune in, because the match is scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN2.

Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin’s side — which finished, 7-11, in conference play last season after a promising start to the season — will have a tough matchup against a Cavaliers squad that reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament. But this is not necessarily bad for the Bears, because Virginia will certainly help Cal prepare to face top-notch competition throughout the season. The Cavaliers have been one of the strongest and most consistent teams in the NCAA as of late. In its 2013-14 season, Virginia went 16-2 against the ACC and finished 30-7 overall, after a comparably lukewarm 2012-13 campaign. The team then proved its success was not a fluke by following up with a near-identical 2014-15 season, in which it went 16-2 against ACC competition and 30-4 overall.

To those who are skeptical of a more fruitful 2015-16 campaign for Cal, it may seem that the team doesn’t have a strong chance of knocking off its superior opponent because of the departure of one of the program’s strongest leaders on and off the court, David Kravish. The alumnus is Cal’s all-time leader in blocks, and his leadership and experience will be sorely missed, but there is a huge influx of talent coming into the program, and the Bears still have plenty of veteran talent to help upset the Cavaliers.

First Team All-Pac-12 selection Tyrone Wallace will be one of the key players Cal will look to for leadership and clutch moments against Virginia. The 2015 Bob Cousy Award finalist carries the distinction of being the only player in the Pac-12 to place in the top five in the conference in points, rebounds and assists with 17.1, 7.1 and four per game, respectively. The point guard is one of the Pac-12’s active leaders in career scoring with almost 1,200 points, and he will have the opportunity to strengthen his legacy by rising to the call of duty against the Cavaliers. He will not have to shoulder the task of leading the team to victory against Virginia alone, because he will be joined by rising juniors Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews. Bird averaged 10.5 points per game last season, while Mathews averaged 13.6.

The veterans will be joined in the two-game series by First Team High School All-Americans Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. Brown, one of the nation’s top-five recruits, will immediately bolster the Bears’ wing position, and he figures to use his athleticism and strength to contribute against the Cavaliers. His fellow newcomer, Rabb, was also a top-10 recruit in the nation and possesses a 6-foot-11 frame. He will be a great option to help block shots, recover offensive rebounds and score inside against the Cavaliers.

Even if the first leg doesn’t turn out to be memorable or highlight-reel worthy for the Bears, the game will be an important one, as it will help Cal build valuable experience and an impressive resume as it vies for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Manny Flores is the assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @manny_0.