In early January, the Cal men’s basketball team played a hard-fought, complete road game against then-No. 25 USC and earned its first victory against a ranked team quite literally at the buzzer, when Ivan Rabb’s block ensured a 74-73 victory. After three failed attempts to defeat a ranked team before that ─ falling just short against Virginia and Arizona, and getting blown away by UCLA three days before ─ the Bears had finally minimized their flaws in the victory. The win against the Trojans turned into three straight, and it seemed like Cal had figured out the necessary adjustments for a strong conference run.
Then came Oregon.
A road game against the then-ranked No. 11 Ducks saw the aforementioned progress all but derailed, as the Bears were embarrassed by their hosts. Cal (18-8, 9-5), which has allowed 62.7 points per game to lead the conference in scoring defense, allowed a whopping 86 points that night, and Rabb, the Bears’ machine down low, was held to a measly four points. That night remains one of few painful memories for Cal fans this season. But Wednesday night, the Bears have an opportunity to redeem themselves as they host the Ducks for their second-to-last home tilt.
Much has changed since then. Oregon extended its winning streak to 17 games before stumbling against Colorado, but it quickly bounced back with an 85-58 destruction of No.4 Arizona. The Ducks lost a tight contest on the road to UCLA, but they weren’t phased and have since won three straight by a combined 57 points. With the latest victory, a 101-73 demolition of Colorado, Oregon clinched its second consecutive season unbeaten at home. In addition, Dillon Brooks, who was injured in the previous outing against Cal but came back after missing only one game, has been on a tear, dropping 20 or more in each of the last three games and 18 or more in six straight.
Cal, on the other hand, hasn’t had the easiest time since the loss to the Ducks. The Bears showcased their toughness while grinding out a tough double-overtime victory against Utah and came up short in a difficult road contest at No. 4 Arizona. Most recently, however, the Bears lost to rival Stanford in a dismal showing and lost their second straight for only the second time this season and the first time since starting conference play. Both losses came from defenses dominating Rabb with double teams. This strategy has been decently effective all season but particularly so the last few games, when outside shooters couldn’t convert well enough from the attention Rabb drew.
The loss to the Cardinal could prove costly for the Bears should USC ultimately surpass them in the Pac-12 standings. Cal holds a one-game lead over the Trojans right now, but another poor showing against Oregon and a decent performance by USC on the road at Arizona could seriously put the Bears’ NCAA tournament hopes at bay. So while a win isn’t necessarily expected ─ or even statistically needed ─ Wednesday night, it would certainly go a long way in helping Cal qualify for March Madness.
Vikram Muller covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].