Cal men’s hoops tasked with battling Saint Mary’s, fans at McKeon Pavilion

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Hours after the conclusion of the 121st Big Game, an electrifying battle for East Bay supremacy will take place in Moraga as Cal men’s basketball takes on Saint Mary’s at McKeon Pavilion.

This matchup is not without its share of history, since this is the first time since 1988 that the Bears will travel to the Gaels’ home arena. While Cal has seen better days, the geographical proximity and extensive history with Saint Mary’s should make this one of the more exciting affairs of the season.

Competing with five opponents on the court is difficult enough, but the Bears will also have to manage the Gaels’ rabid fanbase.

McKeon Pavilion can only fit about 3,500 people, but it gets loud and hot in a hurry, and when that place is rocking, there’s a feeling that the walls are slowly closing in on the opposition.

It won’t help that Saint Mary’s fan base will have all day to pregame *ahem* prepare to drown the opposition in a sea of sound while most Cal fans will be immersed in the post-Big Game festivities and won’t make the trip.

A season removed from going 30-6, Saint Mary’s has sputtered out of the gate, dropping four of its first seven games.

That slow start can be attributed to a seismic shift in roster composition, as the Gaels lost five rotation players to graduation. That list includes Jock Landale, who averaged 21.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game en route to winning WCC Player of the Year.

With Landale and company no longer with the program, head coach Randy Bennett has placed the ball in the hands of junior Jordan Ford, dubbed “Baby Steph” for his play style.

Seven games into the season, Ford has thrown his name into the hat for player of the year, giving Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura and BYU’s Yoeli Childs a run for their money. As Saint Mary’s primary shotmaker and playmaker, Ford is averaging 23.1 points per game, more than doubling last season’s per game average.

Ford’s play style can best be described as a combination of Stephen Curry and Hot Sauce (without all the carry violations). That is to say, Ford can extend his range from well beyond the arc, then combine that shooting with elite handles to string together a series of deadly moves.

One of the guard’s deadliest moves is a simple hesitation crossover, but he executes it so well and so quickly that he leaves defenders in the dust. If the initial crossover doesn’t work to his liking, he’ll immediately jump into another hesitation crossover combination going the other way, a move that he used to blow by then-freshman Justice Sueing last season.

Ford presents a problem for the Bears and not just because he’s been putting up stellar numbers. Cal has struggled to defend opposing guards this season, the most notable example being when St. John’s Shamorie Ponds dropped 32 points at the Legends Classic.

Cal sophomore Juhwan Harris-Dyson might be the one to assume the responsibility of defending Ford. Against Santa Clara when he recorded four steals, Harris-Dyson was tasked with guarding one of the leading scorers Tahj Eaddy, who scored 13 points on 14 shots.

“I was trying to be disruptive any way I could,” Harris-Dyson said after the win over the Broncos.

Dealing with Ford is just one part of the equation as Cal will also have to deal with defending redshirt sophomore Malik Fitts, who has excelled in his first season with the Gaels. Through seven games, Fitts is averaging 14.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.

Since transferring from South Florida, Fitts has been thrown into a larger role compared to his lone season with the Bulls, taking more than double the amount of shots per game without sacrificing efficiency.

As a freshman with the Bulls, Fitts shot 39.5 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from three on 6.9 attempts per game. This season with the Gaels, he’s shooting 37.5 percent from deep.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.