With high hopes come high expectations, and if Cal men’s basketball has learned anything in recent weeks, it’s that hope is running high in Berkeley. But before those expectations can be fulfilled — or unfulfilled — the Bears must prove themselves capable of winning on the road. Luckily for Cal, its last opponent of the season is a bottom-feeder in the Pac-12.
The Bears (21-9, 11-6 Pac-12) will wrap up their 18-game conference season on the road against Arizona State (15-15, 5-12) on Saturday night. This game will come just two days after Cal’s bout with the Sun Devils’ neighboring school, Arizona.
Cal narrowly escaped with a victory at home, 75-70, the last time the two squads faced off. The team was shaken by the loss of starting point guard Tyrone Wallace to a wrist injury, and his understudy, guard Sam Singer, made his first appearance in the starting lineup against the Sun Devils. The junior played valiantly, tying a career-high-tying eight assists and nabbing six rebounds to go along with six points. But it was forward Ivan Rabb who stole the show with 20 points on eight-of-11 shooting, eight rebounds, six assists and three blocks.
Arizona State, on the flipside, lacks size in its frontcourt. Its tallest player, forward Eric Jacobsen, stands at a mere 6 feet 10 inches, giving up inches to both center Kingsley Okoroh and Rabb. The Bears have been exceptional on the glass this season — both offensively and defensively — and will most likely feast on the boards against the height-deprived Sun Devils.
But rebounding is not the only area Arizona State struggles in. The Sun Devils rank last or close to the bottom in nearly every statistical category. Their worst offenses are in field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense and three-point percentage defense, all of which they rank last in conference play. Cal, on the other hand, comes in at fourth, first and first in the three categories, respectively, spelling trouble for Arizona State.
The Bears have also been tearing teams apart recently with a small-ball unit of Wallace, Jordan Mathews, Jabari Bird, Jaylen Brown and Rabb. This lineup has the potential to shred the Sun Devils defense, currently allowing opponents to shoot 49.8 percent from the field. Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin, however, may decide to utilize his team’s size advantage by attacking the glass with Okoroh or by posting up with center Kameron Rooks.
Despite all of their shortcomings, the Sun Devils were a missed three-pointer and a couple of free-throws away from beating the Bears at Haas Pavilion and potentially ruining an undefeated season at home. Cal has markedly improved since then, with key victories against Arizona and Oregon, but mental breakdowns have plagued the Bears all season long. They basically tried to give away a win to Washington, putting a Huskie on the line with seconds remaining to potentially tie the game after leading by 10 with a little more than two minutes left in the game.
The Sun Devils may only have four conference victories but underestimating not-so-great teams has already cost Cal a couple of wins this season. The Bears surely don’t want to be Arizona State’s fifth and last victory this year.
Winston Cho covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho