The Cal men’s basketball team (7-8) has been on the losing end of several soul-crushing blowouts this season, but this young group of Bears has flashed its maturity by shaking off its defeats and attacking the next game on the docket with fire and fury. Against a UCLA (11-4) squad filled with prospects destined for the Association, Cal will need to channel that energy and then some once again.
UCLA’s season has been marred by controversy before it could even begin. During the team’s trip to China for an exhibition against Georgia Tech, freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were arrested for shoplifting in Hangzhou.
Ball, son of the infamous LaVar Ball, has since been pulled out of school and signed a contract with Prienu Vytautas of Lithuanian Basketball League while Hill and Riley have been suspended for the remainder of the season.
All three freshmen were expected to play a good helping of minutes for the Bruins in their first go-arounds with some outlets predicting Riley would start straight out of the gate. The absence of Ball, Hill and Riley has forced head coach Steve Alford’s hand, but Alford has gotten plenty of production all around the board.
The Bruins are led by junior guard Aaron Holiday, the younger brother of Jrue and Justin Holiday, both of whom are in the NBA. The youngest Holiday may soon join his brothers in the league as he is currently a projected second-round pick in the upcoming draft.
Holiday was relegated to the bench last season in favor of Lonzo Ball, LiAngelo’s brother and the second overall pick in the most recent draft. With Lonzo having moved on to the big leagues, Holiday has reclaimed his spot as UCLA’s starting point guard while taking on the responsibility of being the team’s primary option on offense.
In what could potentially be his final season with the Bruins, Holiday is averaging 19.3 points, 5.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 36.9 minutes per game, all of which are career highs for the Bruin. Holiday ranks second in the Pac-12 in assists per game and total minutes played and fifth in points per game.
Holiday’s career high of points in a single game was 20 when he began the season, but he has already bested that total five times this season. UCLA has only played three conference games thus far, but Holiday has already posted a pair of games scoring 30+ points against Washington State and Stanford. Holiday dropped 31 points in a double-overtime loss to the Cardinal, but 29 of those points came in the second half and overtime periods.
Alongside Holiday is the freshmen duo of Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands. Neither Hands nor Wilkes are expected to be selected in the upcoming draft, but both are some of the more intriguing prospects in college basketball, falling in the Top 100 of Aran Smith’s 2018 Big Board.
Wilkes and Hands have had excellent freshman campaigns, averaging 13.4 and 11.9 points per game, respectively. Both freshmen began the season in the team’s starting lineup, but Hands was placed on the bench after starting in his first five games because of a left foot sprain. Hands has remained on the bench and has emerged as the leader of UCLA’s reserve unit.
The Bears will look to counter with a freshman of their own in Justice Sueing, who will come into the game having recorded back-to-back double-digit scoring performances since the Maui Invitational in late November.
Sueing propelled Cal’s comeback win against Stanford, scoring 8 points in the final three minutes of regulation and the go-ahead bucket with less than a minute left. In a blowout loss to USC, the freshman posted 15 points and a career-high nine rebounds along with three assists, three steals and a block.