Before the Pac-12 season, Cal men’s basketball was not even in the same conversation as Utah. The Utes were 9-3 in their nonconference schedule, which included wins over Minnesota, Nevada and then-No. 6 Kentucky, and were also chasing a spot in the tournament. Now, however, the Bears will head to Salt Lake City and face a mirror image of themselves.
Just like Cal, Utah’s performance is heavily dependent on having home-court advantage. The Utes are 0-5 in conference on the road and are 4-1 when they host. The Bears are an almost identical 0-4 away from Berkeley and 4-1 at home.
The teams’ schedules are so similar that even the wins and losses are the same. Both teams hosted and swept the Washington schools, lost both games in Los Angeles, lost to Oregon by five at home, beat Oregon State at home, lost at Colorado and defeated Stanford at home.
It is certainly going to be a tough road game for Cal, but that was also the case against No. 24 Colorado on Thursday — and the Bears nearly walked away with the win. They fought the Buffs close the whole night and had a lead with as little as 7:28 left in the second half.
Ultimately, it wasn’t some offensive collapse or repeated turnovers that ended Cal’s hopes, but simply missed free throws. For a team that averaged 73% from the line in conference prior to Thursday’s loss, shooting only 8-17 in Boulder was shockingly bad. Many of the misses came in the final 10 minutes which disrupted the Bears’ rhythm and allowed the Buffaloes to push the game out of reach.
Making their free throws will certainly help Cal, but it will take some extra effort to defeat Utah’s young talent. The Utes’ six leading scorers are all underclassmen and are led by sophomore forward Timmy Allen, who averages more than 18 points and seven rebounds per game, as well as nearly three assists per game. Allen’s averages in points, rebounds and assists are all individually higher than any player on the Bears’ roster. He is also joined by Rylan Jones, Riley Battin and Both Gach, who all average roughly 10 points a game each.
The good news for Cal is that Allen is an inconsistent three-point shooter, making only 21% of his attempts. The key for this game will be to defend the rim and not foul Allen. Offensive rebounds, a stat that the Bears have struggled with this season, will be a good predictor of how this game will end. If the Utes can grab offensive boards and get high-percentage second-chance shots, then they can easily run away with the game.
Utah is also coming off of a home win against Stanford, while Cal is entering the second game of its road trip after a tough loss to Colorado. The last time Cal lost, however, it was able to regain its footing and defeat Oregon State. Unfortunately for the Bears, they are still winless this season away from Haas Pavilion — a trend they need to buck soon if they hope to finish above .500 in the Pac-12.
If the Cal continues its upward trend and Utah continues to falter, then the Bears may find the break they need to end the Utes’ home win streak. We have seen stretches when the Bears look like they can beat any team in the Pac-12 — now all they need to do is play consistently for the full 40 minutes.
Trilok Reddy covers men’s basketball. Contact him at