Can slumping Cal snap out of it in Tucson?

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Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

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As January comes to an end, the newfound optimism that was present at the year’s opening has now been humbled into modest expectations. Instead of going to the gym every day, perhaps you realize that three times a week works just as well; this is the type of drop in expectations that happens to many by January’s end. Eventually, you find that some goals are just too unrealistic.

This seems to be the case with Cal. After a pleasantly surprising 5-5 start through New Year’s Eve, expectations and hopes for the season were seemingly as high as they’ve been in years. Since then, however, the Bears have returned to Earth, only winning two of their next eight games.

Now 18 games in and riddled by injuries throughout the season, Cal hasn’t fully met the modest expectations that many began to hold after last year’s signs of promise. The squad’s 7-11 overall record is not so bad on paper, but only winning two of 11 conference games is nowhere near ideal. After starting off on a high note, undergoing such a poor stretch isn’t a great sign, injuries or not.

That brings us to the Bears’ next upcoming bout with Arizona in Tucson. The Wildcats have a 12-4 record and have gone 6-4 in conference play. They have competed in hard-fought losses against teams near the top of the conference such as UCLA and Stanford but have also downed other elite teams such as Colorado.

In stark contrast, despite close contests against UCLA and USC, Cal has only beaten two conference opponents, one of whom was Washington. For context, the Huskies sit only above the Bears in the Pac-12. Arizona has one of the best offenses in the Pac-12, as it averages more than 79 points per game, which is more than 11 points above what the blue and gold score on average.

The Wildcats’ offense is mostly a result of having elite three-point shooters such as Terrell Brown Jr., Bennedict Mathurin and James Akinjo. Each of these players shoots above 36.8% — staggering shooting numbers that the blue and gold may struggle to keep up with.

Arizona also makes its living as an elite rebounding team, averaging 40 boards per game. Cal has oftentimes relied on its ability to outhustle teams on the glass and get second-chance points, but against the Wildcats, those opportunities will likely be few and far between.

Cal has a few things going for them entering this matchup.

The obvious positive is that the Bears are finally healthy and boast a complete lineup as originally intended. For most of the January stretch when losses piled up, junior Matt Bradley was hurt. Losing your top scorer is always going to have consequences, no matter how much depth your team possesses.

The second advantage is Cal’s green light from three-point range. While the Wildcats are the superior outside-shooting team, the Bears take far more chances from deep. If the blue and gold can take enough threes and score in bunches, their lower efficiency should be overcome by sheer volume of threes made. It’s a strategy open to risk but one that the team might consider exploring, especially when looking at how popular this method has become at the next level.

This game plan has been used by the Houston Rockets for years and has been relatively effective. This season, the Utah Jazz has also won many games simply by taking more threes than its opponent. If Cal can replicate this formula and get results, it may be able to outscore its opponents and keep pace against high-octane offenses like Arizona’s. Couple this with sound defensive play — the Bears’ calling card — and the team might pull off some upsets.

So far this season and especially over the course of the team’s recent slump, Cal’s strategy has not worked. Perhaps it is time to try something new and see if it sticks — a conference game in which the Bears are underdogs might be just the opportunity they need to switch it up.

Tom Aizenberg covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].