Cal men’s basketball aims to avoid winless conference record

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Cal’s last two home games of a completely forgettable but undeniably historical season. Will the Bears go winless in conference? Is Washington State seriously going to beat Cal? Why is it still raining?

Answers to at least one of these questions lie below.

Washington snapshot

The Washington Huskies (22-5, 13-1) are basically the only program in the Pac-12 that has consistently performed like a functional basketball team over the course of the season and could possibly be the only Pac-12 school to make the NCAA Tournament this March. They’ve gone toe-to-toe with the current No. 1 team in the nation, Gonzaga, only lost one conference game and had a win streak as long as 12 games this season.

The scoring load has primarily landed on the shoulders of sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell, senior forward Noah Dickerson and senior guard David Crisp, but the Huskies do a good job of sharing the ball and often see substantial production from role players such as Dominic Green and Nahziah Carter.

This team’s main strength, however, comes on the defensive end — the Huskies’ suffocating 2-3 zone defense has helped the Seattle school register a top-30 defensive rating and plenty of wins in the process. Senior guard Matisse Thybulle is the runaway defensive player of the year in the conference and could be the first player in NCAA history to average three steals and two blocks over the course of an entire season.

Washington State snapshot

Before the 2018-19 college basketball campaign had officially started, many thought that the Cougars (11-16, 4-10) might actually be worse than Cal this season.

How sweet and innocent we all were in those days.

Wazzu has actually performed much better than anticipated, especially as of late with the Cougars winning three of their past five games, including sweeping the Arizona schools in Arizona no less. They even took their in-state rival Washington down to the wire.

Senior forward Robert Franks is leading the Pac-12 in scoring (22.4 per game) and has had four games this season in which he has hit the 30-point mark. Freshman forward CJ Elleby, whose father played basketball at Cal, has been one of the conference’s best surprises, as he seems to have adjusted to the college game quite nicely, averaging 15 points and seven rebounds per game with an effective field goal percentage of 52 percent and a 41 percent mark from the perimeter.

Plus he has the best hair in the conference.

What Cal needs to do to win — Washington

Shoot effectively from beyond the arc and constantly move the ball in order to counter the Washington zone. Paris Austin cannot simply dribble at the top of the arc and wait for something to develop. The zone is designed to lull teams into holding the ball, suffocating the wings and the corners while preventing access into the paint.

Cal’s best strategy is to get out in transition as much as possible so Washington can’t get set on defense, but when it inevitably does, the Bears must make decisive decisions before the Huskies can run through rotations.

Robust defending would also be advised.

What Cal needs to do to win — Washington State

I was going to type the obvious — stop Franks and Elleby — but you know what? This team isn’t capable of neutralizing players of that caliber, so the next best option may be to accept Franks and Elleby will score and commit the rest of the game plan to shutting out the rest of the Cougars squad. Ball denial, chipping, picking guys up full court — whatever it takes.

Cal cannot allow Wazzu’s role players to fill in the gaps.

Best-case scenario

Both schools underestimate the Bears, and Cal fulfills the ancient motif of pride coming before the fall.

Cal functions as a plot device more successfully than as a basketball team.

Worst-case scenario

Pretty sure the Bears are in it.

Prediction

Washington wins by 25.

Wazzu wins by 11.

Rory O’Toole covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].