Cal men’s basketball favored to win against struggling Cougars

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The Cal men’s basketball team has not lived up to the hype this year. It began the season ranked in the top 15 of most preseason polls and made an appearance on almost every analysts’ locks to make the NCAA tournament.

But the Bears have not been ranked since the end of November, when two losses at the Las Vegas Invitational kicked them from No. 14 to unranked. An injury to senior guard Tyrone Wallace, which forced him to miss five games, only added to a growing list of concerns.

And despite a 16-0 record at Haas Pavilion this season, Cal has only defeated one Pac-12 opponent on the road. Coming off the resurgence of junior guard Jabari Bird this past weekend at home in the Bears’ two wins against the Oregon schools, things might be looking up for Cal amidst all the concerns.

But compared to Washington State, whom the Bears will face Sunday night at Beasley Coliseum, Cal’s problems look miniscule.

The Cougars currently reside at the very bottom of the Pac-12 and are meekly holding up a 9-17 overall record amid an 12-game losing streak. The team has also managed only one Pac-12 win, against UCLA on Jan. 3, 85-78, and tumbled in 12 conference matchups. Washington State finds itself at the bottom of the Pac-12 with the lowest scoring margin — it is the only team in the conference with a negative margin — and turnover margin.

While Cal is currently averaging 75.1 points per game, the Cougars have only managed 71.8. Not only have the Bears been able to find success from Bird in recent games, which was a surprise after he struggled earlier this season, but the return of Wallace to the lineup prompted a new offensive efficiency to the team, including in a huge 20-point win over then-No. 11 Oregon last week. Cal finally began to appear comfortable on both sides of the ball, scoring 83 points against the Ducks and in the win against Oregon State.

“Lately, we’ve been playing really well, we just have to continue that play,” Wallace said. “We just need to minimize our mistakes on the road.”

The one bright spot for the Cougars’ offense is forward Josh Hawkinson, who is currently tied for 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring and fifth in field goal percentage. The junior is also first in the Pac-12 in rebounds and double-doubles. Hawkinson is also the team’s leading scorer.

While the Bears will need to watch for Hawkinson, especially because of his aggressiveness in getting rebounds, the real key for Cal will be not getting in its own head and losing another Pac-12 game on the road. The Bears have fallen by fewer than 10 points in every conference road loss this year. Eliminating that should easily give Cal another “W” and that much more of a chance to win the Pac-12 and punch their ticket to the postseason.

But for the Bears, another win on the road means a lot more than preventing a major upset.

“We feed off the crowd at Haas, but the NCAA tournament isn’t played at Haas Pavilion,” said junior guard Jordan Mathews. “We have to find a way to win on the road because the way our season’s going we really don’t have that many home games left.”

Alaina Getzenberg covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @agetzenberg.