Cal men’s basketball takes on Wyoming on Saturday

Audrey McNamara/Staff

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Since suffering its first loss of the year to San Diego State on Thanksgiving, the Cal men’s basketball team’s start to the holiday season has been far from uplifting.

In their last three outings, the Bears (5-2) have registered an unsightly pair of losses that were only offset by a closely contested victory over Seattle on Tuesday. Yet, excluding the face-off with the Aztecs, these matchups were not expected to pose much of a threat at all to a team picked by some to win the Pac-12 title come March. Falling precipitously from the top 25 in just one week, the Bears have yet to prove that they can perform at a consistently elite level.

“Two tough losses,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin regarding the Bears’ games against San Diego State and Richmond last week. “Two draining physical mental losses.”

Cal’s first opportunity to rebound from this stretch will come Saturday as it takes on Wyoming on the road for its third away game of the year. Like the majority of the Bears’ nonconference opponents, the Cowboys (5-2) aren’t expected to go deep in the 2016 postseason. Though the program brought home its first Mountain West Conference Tournament title last season — clinching a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002 — Wyoming returns just one player from last year’s starting roster after losing a fleet that included NBA first-round pick Larry Nance Jr.

The single remaining force from last season’s starting lineup, senior guard Josh Adams, has been a critical fixture in head coach Larry Shyatt’s system this year. The guard has averaged more than 20 points per game, including a 36-point performance in the Cowboys’ narrow loss to Montana State. Meanwhile, Adams has logged an average of 32.7 minutes, directing his sophomore-heavy supporting cast to five wins during a season that is expected to be a rebuilding year for the Cowboys.

But while Adams is the only returning starter from last season, he isn’t the only veteran on the court. Also emerging as an important contributor is junior guard Jason McManamen. Though McManamen made just four starts last season, the guard has averaged 31.4 minutes per game this year. And with a 52.9 percent average from behind the arc, the guard is a part of a wide array of perimeter threats for Wyoming that includes Adams, guard Alexander Aka Gorski, guard Justin James and forward Alan Herndon — all of whom are shooting from three at above a 35 percent clip.

Meanwhile, three-point shooting has been a consistent weakness for the Bears, particularly in their last several matchups. Challenged again and again by zone defenses from their opponents, Cal has yet to show that it can thrive from behind the arc. Only guards Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews are shooting from the perimeter at above a 30 percent rate, and guard Jabari Bird’s performance has thus far fallen short of his 36.9 percent mark from last season. If they hope to get past the zone defenses of teams with inferior talent, the Bears will need to find a way to improve from behind the arc.

Dani Jo Coony covers men’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected]