No. 14 Cal men’s basketball welcomes Rice on Friday

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Opening day of the NCAA men’s basketball season is notoriously anticlimactic. Matchups such as those between No. 2 Kentucky and Albany typically dominate the airwaves — providing some insights, but generally leaving fans guessing what the season will really bring as nonconference tournaments approach.

The No. 14 Cal men’s basketball team’s game against Rice on Friday night doesn’t figure to be an exception to that trend.

Barring a particularly bad dose of Friday-the-13th luck at Haas Pavilion, the Bears are expected to come out of their matchup against the Owls unscathed. The Texan squad is projected to finish seventh in Conference USA and rings in at 220 out of 351 teams according to Sports Illustrated’s preseason rankings. Meanwhile, CBS’ similar metric gives the Owls a bit more credit at No. 179.

While that might be 41-team difference, the message is the same: Though it’s difficult to distinguish which team will finish where at the bottom of the NCAA’s wide berth of constituents, it’s already a pretty safe bet that Rice won’t be any kind of postseason contender this year.

“Maybe the competition might be a little bit tougher (than Carroll),” said Cal forward Jaylen Brown after the team’s exhibition game Monday. “But I don’t expect it to be too much different. I expect us to come out and compete hard. I expect a better effort on defense. I expect us to dominate the game.”

But despite coming off of a 12-20 season, the Owls bring in two new additions to their starting roster, and they could introduce some potential challenges for the Bears. In Rice’s exhibition game earlier this week, freshman guard Marcus Evans led the Owls with 24 points, followed by forward Egor Koulechov. A redshirt sophomore transfer from Arizona State, Koulechov registered 23 points of his own, and he could give the Bears the type of difficulty that Carroll forward Oliver Carr provided Monday.

“I think we need to definitely get better in that area especially as being able to contend with small bigs,” said Cal guard Tyrone Wallace. “But you know (Carr) played well. He got to his spots and he made us pay, and we’ve got to get better.”

Defensive woes were a common issue for the Bears in spite of their dominating 93-58 win over the Fighting Saints on Monday. After having trouble with communication against Carroll, Cal will look to streamline its defensive performance Friday and stop the Owls’ top scorers from making too much noise. Meanwhile, the Bears also hope that more efficient defense and rebounding will create better opportunities for their transition game — which could be one the team’s biggest strengths this season with explosive players such as Brown and Wallace on the floor.

“(Brown) can handle it and push and get up the glass and get up the floor,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “Especially if somebody’s foreman is defending him, he can move, he can get up the floor, he can make plays.

Contact Dani Jo Coony at [email protected].