Winning away from home is difficult. On average, college basketball teams lose roughly 67% of their games on the road, making away games a Herculean task for most teams. To win in an opponent’s arena you need talented players to elevate their game. You need leaders who impose poise and maturity. Most of all, you need stoicism, consistency and stability.
The Bears will need all of these traits and more as they take on the USC Trojans on Thursday at the Galen Center. Cal has yet to win a game on the road this season and is looking to change its fortune as they head south to Los Angeles. The Trojans are one of the best teams in the Pac-12, as they boast a 13-3 record that includes two wins against conference teams.
Cal looked its best in its past two matchups as the blue and gold won two close games against Washington State and Washington consecutively. The Bears narrowly beat the Cougars by seven, and outlasted the Huskies in over time with a game winning three from Pac-12 Player of the Week Matt Bradley. But the difference in their play was not just the improved team effort from the roster, but the crowd as well.
“We don’t win today without the crowd that was here,” said head coach Mark Fox after Cal’s victory over Washington. “We don’t win the game without them, so I thank them for delivering when they did with energy.”
Multiple times this season Fox pumped up the crowd and created noise in Haas Pavilion, and the Bears — who boast an 8-2 record at home — have certainly seen the fruits of his efforts with electric crowds and campus buzz. But when Cal has traveled outside of the East Bay, it has been nothing but poor efforts, disappointments and missed opportunities.
Unfortunately for the blue and gold, their revitalized road efforts will be put to an extreme test against the Trojans, who have only lost one game at home.
USC is powered by freshman Onyeka Okongwu, who leads the team in scoring with 16.9 points per game with nearly 11 attempts per game. The 6’9” forward dominates opponents on both sides of the ball, shooting 62% from the field while clogging the paint with 2.9 blocks per game, third and second-best in the Pac-12 respectively.
Joining Okongwu as a towering figure in the paint is 7’0” forward Nick Rakocevic, who averages 11.8 points and 9 rebounds per game. Rakocevic is the third-best board man in the conference, and will certainly be a terror to the Bears, who rank dead last in the Pac-12 in rebounds per game. The rest of the USC roster is similarly lengthy, and the blue and gold will have to box out effectively and consistently to limit second-chance opportunities for the Trojans.
Cal is no stranger to talented big men, having just faced one of the most elite forwards in the country, Isaiah Stewart. The Huskies’ star was held to just 13 points and 6 rebounds in a season-high 41 minutes. The key to stopping Stewart was the Bears implementation of a 2-3 zone that doubled Stewart every time he had the ball in the low post. Their switch to a zone defense, coupled with the rotation of fresh bodies such as Lars Thiemann, Andre Kelly and D.J Thorpe, may finally be the recipe the Bears have found for success against elite forwards. Both Okongwu and Rakocevic could be in for similar fates if Cal can match the ferocity and fervor of their defensive effort against Washington.
The biggest weakness the Bears will look to exploit on the defensive end is the Trojans lack of three-point shooting. USC is near the bottom of the NCAA in three-point attempts per game, averaging only 18 shots per contest. Cal will be able to focus most of its efforts on the interior, which is an absolute necessity against the Trojans — whose offense comes primarily from close range. The Bears have held all but two of their opponents to less than their season average, and their talented defense will have to be at its best to hold off USC’s scorers.
On the other side of the ball, the blue and gold have still struggled to find their offensive rhythm.
Bradley has been Cal’s primary scoring option, as he leads the team with 17.7 points per game, but beyond the sophomore guard, the Bears have struggled to find secondary scoring options. The Bears have only two players who average points in the double digits, and one of them, guard Kareem South, has all but disappeared in his past few games. The 6’2” senior averaged 4.7 points per game in his last three outings — his lowest scoring stretch of the season — and the team as a whole has only scored more than 65 points in one of their last five games.
While their 311th ranked offense has yet to come to life, there are glimmers of hope for the Bears’ offense. Forward Grant Anticevich has elevated his play in the blue and gold’s recent stretch of games, scoring 12 points or more in Cal’s last four contests. Most of Anticevich’s offense has come off the high post, where the junior forward excels at hitting jump shots in the holes of zone defenses.
Similarly, senior point guard Paris Austin has been a spark plug for the Bears, scoring 27 points in his last two games combined, including a clutch three-pointer in Cal’s overtime win against Washington. Both Austin and Anticevich have played Batman to Bradley’s Robin, and will have to continue to be consistent scoring options if the Bears want to put up enough points to challenge the Trojans.
Ultimately, this matchup will come down to the Bears’ ability to maintain composure on the road. In their last two games, the Bears have demonstrated that they are capable of playing 40 minutes of solid basketball, but they have yet to prove they can do it without the roar of the Berkeley crowd and the familiar feeling of home. The Trojans represent the next test for a Bears team that wants to prove they can hang with the conference.
Cal takes on USC at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Thursday at 7:30 PM.