It’s almost impossible to deny that Cal men’s basketball has improved substantially under head coach Mark Fox. The team has already surpassed its previous season’s win total by two games, allowed almost nine fewer points per contest compared to last year, and most importantly have the most conference victories since 2016. But one area where the 2019-20 Bears have failed to demonstrate improvement is on the road.
The Bears are a staggering 0-10 away from Haas Pavilion, and while their upcoming matchup against Washington State is arguably their best remaining chance to reverse their fortune, it won’t come easy.
The Cougars are one of the best teams in the conference at home, boasting a 5-2 record that includes a win against then No. 8 Oregon and a narrow triumph over Arizona State. The best teams in the Pac-12 have struggled to walk away from Pullman victorious and Cal could be yet another victim of Washington State’s impressive home performances.
WSU is led by forward CJ Elleby, who averages 18.7 points per game on a 40.7% clip. The 6’6” Washington native lit up Haas Pavilion in the Bears’ first matchup against the Cougars for 22 points and 9 rebounds, both team highs. Elleby is one of the most prolific yet inconsistent forwards in the Pac-12, capable of putting up awe-inspiring performances but occasionally nagged by less than stellar outings that kill Washington State’s offensive production. Containing the sophomore will be the blue and gold’s first objective if they hope to leave Beasley Coliseum with a win.
Elleby is the main weapon in an offense that focuses primarily on outside shooting. The Cougars are first in the Pac-12 in three-point attempts per game and hit roughly 30% of their shots from the arc. This poses particular problems for the Bears, who rank second to last in the conference in opposing three-point percentage and have been buried by long range barrages from teams such as Saint Mary’s and USC this season. If Elleby’s offensive prowess can be complemented by shooting from veterans like Isaac Bonton and Jervae Robinson, Cal may find themselves in the midst of a shootout without the artillery advantage.
On the other side of the ball, the blue and gold have struggled to produce consistent scoring. The Bears average 59.3 points per game in conference play, making them the worst offense in the conference by far. Their inability to put the ball in the basket comes in part due to Cal’s poor ball movement. They rank 347th out of 350 programs in assists per game, with an abhorrent 9.1 average. For context, that’s worse than teams such as Central Connecticut State, Old Dominion and Stetson University.
Passing is not the only realm in which the Bears will need to improve if they hope to find their first road victory Thursday. Cal also ranks dead last in the conference in total rebounds and second to last in offensive boards — an absolutely devastating figure for a team that struggles to convert its limited scoring opportunities. The blue and gold have been on the wrong side of the second chance points differential in their last three games, and while forwards Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich have elevated their rebounding effort, it will take a team effort top to bottom to win the battle of the boards.
Without a doubt, the best scoring threat for the Bears is Matt Bradley, who is the only Bear to score in the double digits. The 6’4” sophomore and former Pac-12 Player of the Week has put up at least 13 points in every game of 2020 thus far, and the Bears will continue to rely on their budding star to produce the lion’s share of their offensive output.
Bradley is not alone, however. Over the past five games, Austin averages 10.8 points and has often sparked the Bears out of scoring slumps and field goal droughts. Austin and Bradley will likely feast on a Cougar defense that sits at the bottom of the Pac-12 in opposing field goal percentage — teams shoot 45% from the field against Washington State.
If the talented guard duo can find complementary scoring from inconsistent players such as Kelly, Anticevich and Kareem South, Cal can go tit for tat with the talented WSU offense. But if shooting woes and poor ball movement continue to be the norm for the Bears, the team could once again falter on the road.
Ultimately, if Cal wants to leave the Evergreen State with a victory, their best opportunity will come Thursday night against the Cougars. Wins are hard to come by in the Pac-12, and even harder to find on the road. The Bears will need to muster their best performance in weeks on both sides of the ball if they want to shock Pullman and the conference as a whole.
The blue and gold are obviously better than teams of years past, but the question remains: Can Cal take the next step and win on the road?