Headed in opposite directions, Cal men’s basketball seeks to slow red-hot Arizona State

Josh Kahen/Staff

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During Thursday evening’s deflating home loss to Arizona, Cal center D.J. Thorpe saw two consecutive free throws rim out. Then another. And another.

Playing in a conference where any given day is an opportunity to leapfrog up the standings, an extended shooting slump makes the opposite almost inevitable.

“The margin for error versus a team that’s that good on both ends is very slim,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox following the loss. “We obviously didn’t play well enough to give ourselves a chance.”

So it goes for the Cal men’s basketball program — which has tumbled to a 10-14 record and is 4-7 in Pac-12 play, ahead of just Washington in the conference standings. Throughout an ongoing three-game losing skid, the Bears have averaged just 54 points per contest, generating little offense outside of star shooting guard Matt Bradley.

The climb back up into the thick of Pac-12 competition gets no easier Sunday, when red-hot Arizona State enters Haas Pavilion, a winner in six of its last seven contests.

The Sun Devils (16-8, 7-4) — who clinched one of the last four spots in the 2019 NCAA Tournament last March — are paced by junior guard Remy Martin, the 2017-18 Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year.

Now firmly entrenched as a starter, Martin leads Arizona State in points (19.5), assists (3.9) and steals (1.7) per game, making a firm case for an all-conference first team selection. The 19.5 points per contest edges the 19.3 mark by Oregon’s Payton Pritchard for the high bar in the Pac-12, while his 1.7 steals ranks No. 4.

Head coach Bobby Hurley’s squad also poses a challenge underneath with one of the premier big men in the Pac-12, 6’8” junior forward Romello White, who leads the conference in rebounds per game (9.2), and has eclipsed double-digit rebounds in 11 games this season.

With a 74-69 road win over Stanford on Thursday, the Sun Devils clinched their first four-game winning streak in Pac-12 play since the 2009-10 campaign. In that game, Arizona State led for all but two minutes as Martin (24 points) and leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate Alonzo Verge Jr. (19 points) set the tone early and often against the Cardinal defense.

As the Sun Devils take aim at a fifth straight win, the Bears will seek to move on from a forgettable wire-to-wire performance against the Wildcats, which saw Cal commit 15 costly turnovers and accrue only seven assists.

The sloppy play spoiled a solid performance from Bradley and sophomore big man Andre Kelly, who fell just two points and a rebound short of his first double-double since opening night against Pepperdine.

With a well-balanced program on deck, Cal’s execution on both ends of the floor is a must on Sunday afternoon.

“For us, it starts on defense,” said guard Paris Austin following the loss to Arizona. “We get the stops on defense and it leads to our offense. It gives everybody that motivation, that extra drive when we get a stop.”

Josh Yuen is the editor in chief and president. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.