Cal men’s faces Utah with Pac-12 bye as reward

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After a heartbreaking loss Oregon on a Dillon Brooks three against, the Cal men’s basketball team used its emotions of the loss to fuel a 30-point destruction of Oregon State in the next game. In that same spirit of bouncing back, Utah, which hosts the Bears on Thursday night, is in desperate need of a victory to rebound from a very poor run of form, which started with a loss to none other than Cal.

The Utes started their season 15-6, with five of their six losses coming at the hands of ranked opponents until a double overtime loss in Berkeley sent them reeling backwards. Since that night at the start of February, Utah went 3-4 in the month, including an embarrassing loss to Oregon State ─ the Beavers’ only conference win this season ─ which Cal just demolished last week.

With the loss to the Bears, the Utes squandered not only multiple late leads, but also a chance to move into a tie for third place in the conference. Instead, they collapsed (somewhat) and Cal sits comfortably in fourth, poised for a first-round bye in the upcoming Pac-12 tournament and likely to receive a NCAA tournament bid. With two games remaining, Utah needs a win Thursday night, a win Saturday against Stanford ─ which they recently lost to ─ and a Cal loss against Colorado, if they are to earn that coveted bye.

So ultimately, the Bears control their own destiny.

And while the bye does seem likely, Cal’s recent play should be the focus heading into Thursday’s tilt, considering that the Bears lost three straight before their dominant performance against lowly Oregon State. In those losses common themes emerged. Ivan Rabb was held relatively quiet ─ not necessarily statistically, as he posted double-doubles against Stanford and Oregon ─ but in terms of his overall impact.

Doubling Rabb down low has become the proven defensive focal point by Cal’s opponents, who effectively leave weak-side shooters open, and do a decent job rotating once the ball is swung out. Rabb seldom chooses to force himself through the double to earn a trip to the line, perhaps because he knows his shooters provide a better opportunity. But sometimes this limits his team, as opponents gain confidence when they know they can force outside shots with a simple double.

Jabari Bird and Grant Mullins, the Bears’ best three-point shooters, have played decently well recently, each scoring in double-figures five times in the seven games dating back to the Utah victory, but the pair only combined to shoot better than 50 percent in one of those seven. With Rabb scoring most of his points on assists near the basket or from the free throw line, Bird and Mullins’ collective efficiency needs to improve if Cal wants to make an impact in the postseason.

Utah, on the other hand, has been anchored by forward Kyle Kuzma, who has scored in double-figures in 13 consecutive contests. Kuzma dominated the Bears with 23 points and 14 rebounds in the previous outing, but he received little help, with his team combining 4-14 from deep and shooting 41.5 percent overall, well below its then-conference leading season average of 53.9. The Utes did hold the Bears to 25 percent from three, but if Utah is going to beat the Cal this time around and have a shot at a first round bye, they’ll have to do it at the offensive end against the conference’s best defense.

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