Cal men’s basketball looking to continue win streak in Arizona

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When people think of Arizona, they think about heat. They think about scorching temperatures and dry, desert-like weather. But this week, while Tempe is forecasted to face some relatively mild temperatures in the mid-70s, the Cal men’s basketball team (17-6, 8-3) will be bringing the heat, riding a four-game win streak entering Wednesday’s contest against Arizona State (11-13, 4-7).

Each of the Bears’ four consecutive victories has showcased a different side of the team’s strengths, including a physical defensive battle against Stanford a week ago, a grind-out double overtime victory against a formidable Utah team and some clinical sharpshooting displayed against Colorado.

But on the other hand, Cal has shown weakness during these wins as well, to the extent that no game ─ perhaps with the exception of the road win against Oregon State ─ felt secure until the dying moments. Cal has struggled shooting the three and has suffered even more with closing out games.

The Bears allowed the Beavers to shoot 50 percent in the first half, including shots from downtown, while only shooting 25 percent from deep themselves. A two-minute stretch in the second half allowed one Stanford player to score five straight buckets. Cal let a 14-point lead against Utah slip away, needing two overtimes to win. And against Colorado, a hot start from range dwindled in the second half and allowed the Buffaloes to cut a 23-point lead to five.

All surprising statistics for the top-ranked defense in the Pac-12.

The Bears currently stand tied with No. 10 UCLA for third place by conference record, and while they aren’t likely to finish ahead of the Bruins, a fourth place conference finish would very likely guarantee an NCAA tournament bid in March. Victory is ultimately the only requirement for a team looking to make a push for the March Madness, but a sense of security is often useful for confidence heading into future matchups. So while Cal is on a four-game winning streak, it would be particularly useful to win games more convincingly as it heads toward the postseason.

Arizona State provides a perfect opportunity for the Bears to do just that. Cal hosted the Sun Devils on New Year’s Day, and the Bears played one of their best games of the season. Not only did Ivan Rabb and Grant Mullins finish with 20 points apiece, but the team as a whole also shot over 40 percent from behind the arc. But even more significantly, Cal’s defense stepped up in the second half. It held the Sun Devils to 31 percent shooting ─ and only 9 percent from deep ─ a value far better than the 48 percent of the first half. Their improved defense allowed a one-point halftime lead to balloon into a comfortable 81-65 victory.

It was a complete game for Cal, something that it hasn’t seen lately and something that it could use again this week. Arizona State hasn’t shown much improvement since the previous contest at Haas, going 3-6 in that span, and Wednesday’s matchup should give Cal a boost of confidence before three more intense games against Arizona, Stanford and Oregon.

Vikram Muller covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].