Cal faces high-powered Arizona State offense in Pac-12 opener

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One more oddity in a season full of firsts should hardly faze Cal men’s basketball, but an early start to the Pac-12 season might be the most important change to date. Nearly a full month earlier than usual, Cal will tip off conference play by hosting No. 25 Arizona State on Thursday night.

This time, the Bears will not have 6,000 fans and the Cal Band on their side as they face a Sun Devils team sporting one of the best offenses in the country. Both of these teams have a 2-1 record, but how they got there is completely different.

Arizona State boasts the seventh-best offense in the country by points per possession, and that comes in spite of a game against then-No. 3 Villanova. Meanwhile, Cal’s offense struggled at times against Northwest University, an NAIA school, and Nicholls State, which plays in the Southland Conference, to come in at 159th in the country.

To make matters worse for the blue and gold, Remy Martin, who torched Cal last year with 22 points on 7 for 10 shooting as part of an 80-75 Arizona State win, added some serious backup. The senior guard, who was last season’s leading scorer for the Sun Devils, is one of four Arizona State players averaging at least 15 points per game this season.

Two of those players are standout freshmen. Josh Christopher, a consensus five-star recruit and a projected first-round draft pick, joined Arizona State and immediately showed that he deserved the hype by averaging nearly 19 points and five rebounds per game on 58% shooting. He also dropped a season-high 28 points against Villanova. The other freshman, Marcus Bagley, hasn’t been slacking himself. Bagley, a forward whose brother was selected No. 2 overall in the 2018 NBA draft, had Cal in his top three schools but eventually committed to Arizona State, where he now averages more than 15 points and five rebounds per game.

All of these players combine to form an offense that would scare any team, especially a Cal team that typically plays with a slower pace and struggles when its offense is challenged.

Junior guard Matt Bradley, as usual, has been a scoring machine: He’s averaging more than 19 points per game, but the rest of the team can’t keep up. The Bears don’t have a single other player who averages more than 10 points per game. Graduate transfers Ryan Betley and Makale Foreman have been supplementing the blue and gold scoring, but to open the Pac-12 season with a win, Cal is going to need someone to step up and match Arizona State’s ability to put the ball in the basket.

Senior forward Grant Anticevich has proven that he can come up big when needed. Last year against the Sun Devils, he scored 18 points and nabbed eight rebounds, but that also came with five turnovers, which the Bears will need to keep to a minimum this time. Junior forward Andre Kelly is also a threat. Kelly has been rock-solid down by the basket and played a crucial part in a number of Pac-12 victories late last season for Cal.

While this game may seem like a longshot for the Bears, they do have a knack for taking games they have no business winning. In the last two years, an unranked Cal team has defeated a top-25 opponent at home. Maybe this will be the game the blue and gold find their rhythm on offense and shock us all.

Trilok Reddy covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]