Even after the Bears’ electrifying 74-73 win over No. 12 Arizona, nobody quite knows what to make of this year’s rendition of the Cal men’s basketball team (14-6, 4-3 Pac-12).
The team has seen its fair share of both ups and downs in a season peppered with winning streaks, losing streaks, inconsistent performances and a seemingly incurable habit of playing down to inferior opponents. As Cal guard Jordan Mathews would say, “You’ve got to play until the buzzer sounds.”
Due up next for the 2015-16 Bears: a crucial matchup against Utah on Wednesday in Salt Lake City.
During the throes of preseason, many had projected the Utes (15-5, 4-3) to finish near the top of the conference alongside other expected Pac-12 heavyweights such as Arizona and Cal. Seven games into conference play, it is clear there is no dominant team cruising through its schedule — including Utah.
Utah has benefitted this season from relatively little turnover, as head coach Larry Krystkowiak has four starters from last year’s Sweet 16 squad under his wing again, including star forward Jakob Poeltl. The 7-footer, who was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshmen team last season, currently leads the team in points per game (16.9), rebounds (179) and blocks (35) and is third in assists (42). Poeltl notched a double-double in Utah’s most recent game Sunday, as the Utes toppled Washington from its first-place perch in the Pac-12. Poeltl finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds en route to the 80-75 overtime road win. To help contain Poeltl inside, Cal will have to lean on centers Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh who cobbled together an impressive performance against the Wildcats amid early foul trouble.
“It’s one thing to guard big guys that can score, but it’s another thing to guard big guys that can score and make free throws when they’re fouled — good athletes,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. “This is probably the toughest matchup across the board collectively for our big guys all year.”
Poeltl’s development has lessened the talent vacuum left by guard Delon Wright, one of the most valuable players in college basketball last season. Utah also has forward Jordan Loveridge at hand, whose quickness could give the Bears fits Wednesday.
Cal must also remedy its chronic struggles on the road if it hopes to come away with a win against Utah. The Bears have accumulated a bleak 1-6 record away from home this season, including a three-game losing streak in early January. With Cal slated to play six more road games, the team will need to reverse this dismal trend as soon as possible.
The Bears had the advantage of a boisterous home crowd the last time they faced Utah, an undeniable key to Cal’s 71-58 victory Jan. 3. In that game, freshman forward Ivan Rabb grabbed 10 boards and scored a career-high 19 points with 17 in the second half. The Utes shot 38.5 percent from the field that afternoon and lost the battle on the glass, 39-28 — anomalies that will likely not occur Wednesday.
“We’re not going to get too high or too low after a win or a loss,” Mathews said. “You just gotta go back to the drawing board and stay level. I think our young guys to a great job of staying level.”