When Cal men’s basketball claimed its first road win of the season Sunday night, it seemed as though the team had exorcised some of its past demons. After all, the victory represented just the third road win by the Bears in three seasons. But now the question remains: Can the Bears continue to improve on the problems that plagued them in the past?
That question should be answered Thursday night when the blue and gold attempt to dethrone the top team in the Pac-12. UCLA, who rides into Berkeley on a six-game winning streak, is clicking right now — the No. 24 Bruins are 7-0 in conference play and recently cracked the nation’s top 25 rankings for the first time this season.
But Cal, too, has some momentum. While the team continues to miss junior standout Matt Bradley and others due to injuries, head coach Mark Fox has rallied his troops — and they’ve responded. After dropping their first five Pac-12 games, the Bears mustered wins in two of their last three conference contests and sit just one victory shy of a 0.500 record.
If Bradley is unable to play for his fifth game in a row, Cal will likely turn to graduate transfers Makale Foreman and Ryan Betley to make up for his offensive output. Both have found success from deep and possess the veteran leadership needed to navigate against college basketball bluebloods such as UCLA. Speaking of veterans, the Bears are getting valuable minutes from big men Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich, the latter of whom continues a strong return from an emergency appendectomy earlier this season.
Defense has been Cal’s calling card this season. Faced with a UCLA team that boasts six players averaging double-digit scoring, the Bears will certainly have their hands full. If Cal can neutralize guards Tyger Campbell and Chris Smith, who combined for 32 points and 13 assists the last time these two teams played, there might be hope of an upset victory.
But if not, the Cal faithful should expect more of the same. The Bruins throttled the Bears in a 20-point victory in Westwood last month. The result marked UCLA’s seventh consecutive win over Cal; however, it’s a new year, and under Fox, the Bears are 17-7 when defending their den.
Beyond this season, the teams have a rich rivalry that spans decades. The two schools have met a total of 163 times, meaning that aside from Stanford (whom Cal has played 164 times), the Bruins are the Bears’ most common foe. It hasn’t been close, however, as Cal claimed victory in just 44 of those matchups. The blue and gold’s struggle in both conference play and specifically against UCLA mean there is more than just pride on the line Thursday night.
To be the best, you have to beat the best. The Bears have come close a few times this season, but close doesn’t appear on the stat sheet. A shorthanded squad against a team playing possibly its best basketball of the season seems like a recipe for disaster, but anything can happen in rivalry games. Armed with the excitement that comes with the national stage, there may not be a better time than this for Cal to get the last laugh.