Cal men’s basketball faces tough road test against No. 9 Arizona

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The Cal men’s basketball team last faced Arizona (22-3, 11-1 Pac-12) on the opening night of their hefty conference schedule, planning to use the then-No. 12 Wildcats as a rough measuring stick to gauge their readiness for the bright lights of the Pac-12. On that night, the Bears (18-6, 9-3 Pac-12) fell, 67-62, in what was not only their second straight loss, but their second straight loss in Haas Pavilion, where they had just won 27 consecutive games.

But now, as they prepare to again do battle with Arizona, this time in Tucson, the Bears — who were once upon a time spiraling into mediocrity — are in their best form yet. Cal has won eight of nine and five in a row, and is coming off of what was perhaps its most dominating outing against a Pac-12 foe by beating up on Arizona State 68-43. No. 9 Arizona may be the first seed in the conference, boasting a gaudy 11-1 Pac-12 record, but the Bears have grabbed firmly onto third. And while the Wildcats just recently beat bottomfeeder Stanford, the sting of their 85-58 shellacking from No. 5 Oregon has no doubt left an impression. If the Bears look to topple the mighty Wildcats, they’ll need to again follow the gameplan that has become the standard, for good reason, in recent weeks.

Sophomore Ivan Rabb has undoubtedly been the keystone to Cal’s current streak, but he’s been dominant all year. It’s been the players around Rabb, who early in the year weren’t quite ready, that have begun to come up huge. True freshman Charlie Moore exploded for 17 points and eight assists in the Bears’ win over Colorado, Grant Mullins scored 18 — all from three — against the Sun Devils, and who could forget Jabari Bird’s career-high 26 points in the double-overtime win over Utah, or his game-winning slam dunk? Cal is at its best when all five men on the floor play well, not just the one likely going early in the upcoming NBA Draft. And any potential victory in Tucson will need to be heavily driven by the non-Rabb Bears, for there’s little doubt that Ivan will show up.

And, not to make any top-10 national team seem in any way one-dimensional, but Arizona goes largely by how their best player, freshman Lauri Markkanen, goes. Markkanen is the highest overall scorer on the roster by nearly 100 points, he leads them in minutes and shoots a downright astonishing 47.5 percent from three. He’s also seven feet tall, 230 pounds, and can run and dribble like a guard.

The dude’s a load.

And it may very well be on Rabb to keep him quiet. Rabb is the best defender on a team full of very good defenders, and the only one with the rare combination of size, speed and instinct necessary to slow down Arizona’s phenom in the making. And, quite frankly, it’s the only real blueprint available to beat the Wildcats. Oregon is the only Pac-12 team to pull it off this season, and they held Markkanen to two makes on 11 shots. It’s likely be a battle of the stars, and it’s up to Rabb to shine the brightest.

Austin Isaacsohn covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @AustinIsaacsohn.