A new hope: Cal men’s basketball looks to start season strong

photo of Cal men's Basketball
Josh Kahen/Senior Staff

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While it was just an exhibition game, Cal showed poise in its dominating 92-58 victory over Cal State LA.

When the season officially commences Tuesday, the Bears will look to continue their momentum against UC San Diego. If the blue and gold want to stay afloat with their overall record, they must take advantage of pre-conference matchups.

The Tritons finished last season with a 7-10 overall record and 4-8 conference play record in the Big West, a relatively weaker conference than the Pac-12. All signs point to Cal winning this game, but at the same token, the Bears simply do not have the luxury of taking games off.

Luckily for the blue and gold, UCSD doesn’t appear to have any elite scorers. The Tritons are returning previous lead scorer senior forward Toni Rocak, who averaged 12.8 points per game on 51.9% shooting last season. And while these are respectable numbers, it’s nothing the Bears can’t stop.

Rocak also shot an abysmal 24.1% from three and a shaky 63.5% free throw percentage. Free throw percentage is usually indicative of how well a player shoots. Thus, it would be wise of the blue and gold to force Rocak to take outside shots rather than let him get to work in the paint.

Besides Rocak, the rest of the roster appears to be a mystery. The Tritons’ second- and third-leading scorers from last season are gone, and not a single player from the rest of the returning roster cracked double-digit points per game last season. Moreover, UCSD has four incoming freshmen.

Of course, scoring isn’t everything in basketball. But Rocak was also the team’s leading rebounder last season, snagging 5.3 boards per game. All other players averaged fewer than four rebounds per game. Not only do Rocak’s scoring numbers illustrate that his strength is in the paint, but his rebounding numbers also suggest that the Bears ought to force him outside the perimeter.

Much of Cal’s offense against Cal State LA came from its defense, as it forced 27 turnovers and scored 33 points off of them. It will be difficult for the blue and gold to replicate Monday’s performance, but if they show a similar defensive tenacity, they will be in a good position to trounce the Tritons.

On the other hand, keeping turnovers low will be extremely important for this Cal squad — not just for this game but for the rest of the season. It had 15 against a weak opponent in Cal State LA, indicating a sort of recklessness with the ball. While the Golden Eagles only scored 8 points off of turnovers, the Bears won’t always be so fortunate.

If the blue and gold want to start their season off strong, veteran forward Grant Anticevich must continue his strong shooting from Monday. Anticevich had 23 points on a scorching hot 10-for-12 clip from the field against the Golden Eagles, providing a much-needed strong scoring punch. While asking for a performance like this every game would be nonsensical, consistent shooting from Anticevich could prove to be critical for the Bears’ floor spacing.

After losing last season’s lead scorer Matt Bradley to San Diego State, there was a huge question mark for Cal on who would step up in wake of his absence. While Anticevich had the most impressive offensive performance Monday, the Bears had three others in double-digit scoring: senior forward Andre Kelly, graduate student guard Jordan Shepherd and junior center Lars Thiemann. Furthermore, these players collectively shot an extremely efficient 15-for-21 from the field.

What the blue and gold lack in “talent” and ”hype,” they make up for in experience and veteran savvy. Outsmarting younger opponents such as UC San Diego will be fundamental in starting their season strong and improving from last year’s disappointing record.

A season presents many ups and downs, so all the blue and gold faithful can do is hope for the best from this erratic Bears squad.

Justin Kim covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].