Cal men’s basketball prepares to battle Arizona State

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At this time last year, Cal men’s basketball had already picked up its first conference win over Stanford, Cal’s first Pac-12 opponent.

The year before, Cal toppled Arizona State in its opening weekend of conference play. And the season before that saw the Bears come up with wins in both of their first two conference matchups.

This new year, though, is off to a different start. Cal men’s basketball returns home to host Arizona State on Wednesday night after suffering back-to-back losses, to USC and UCLA, to open Pac-12 play. Starting the season with two conference losses is a low that Cal hasn’t sunk to since 2011.

But Cal isn’t the only one sinking. Previously No. 17-ranked Arizona State fell out of the AP’s rankings last week after being upset by Princeton at home, 67-66. The Sun Devils followed their harrowing loss with a second straight home defeat, this time to Utah, ensuring Arizona State is no longer a clear conference favorite.

Yet despite the recent rocky play, the Sun Devils are still among the best of the Pac-12, for whatever that is worth. Arizona State began the season 7-0 before dropping its first game of the season in a contentious battle to a red-hot Nevada team. Continuing to turn heads, the Sun Devils bested then-no. 1 Kansas, 80-76, at home, defeating the Jayhawks for a second straight season. The program’s solid start can’t be entirely erased because of the Sun Devils’ recent blunder.

Leading the Sun Devils to their relative success this season is their standout freshman guard Luguentz Dort — he leads the team in scoring, with 17.5 points per game, which places him fourth on the Pac-12 leaderboard for points per game.

Feeding Dort the ball more often than not, redshirt senior Zylan Cheatham has proven his ability as a ballhandler and a collegiate basketball veteran. The forward, coming off a season on the sidelines after transferring from San Diego State, is averaging 11.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game.

A strong defensive team, Arizona State averages 6.3 steals per game — more steals than opponents have averaged against Cal so far in the season. The Sun Devils’ defensive pressure will certainly challenge the Bears, whose offense has been struggling to leave a game with a low turnover count.

With the Bears’ brightest star Paris Austin out because of injury in their game against UCLA, Cal set a new season high for turnovers (18). Of course, the game isn’t played by a single person, but Austin plays a crucial role for the team — his consistency and ability to handle pressure was visibly missed last weekend.

While Austin was forced to sit out against UCLA, freshman Connor Vanover saw increased minutes after being sidelined for weeks because of a broken nose and concussion.

Vanover’s better health presented Cal head coach Wyking Jones with yet more ways to permute Cal’s lineup, as Jones surprisingly started several reserves. Considering these players’ previous lack of time on the court, the Bears fared all right but still couldn’t display much improvement.

Arizona State is currently looking to grab on to anything to pull itself back up from its quick descent. Regardless of who Jones puts on the hardwood Wednesday night against a Sun Devil squad desperate to prove itself, decreasing Cal’s number of turnovers is essential for the Bears to make any strides forward.

Surina Khurana covers men’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.