Cal faces tough test against No. 24 Florida

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David McAllister/Senior Staff

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After opening the year with a slate of games against midmajor opponents, Cal will face its first big challenge of the season Monday when it travels to face No. 24 Florida. This early-season measuring stick opportunity should show the Bears just how close (or far) they are from competing with the nation’s best.

The 3-0 Gators are a team with legitimate postseason aspirations — similar to many of the top-tier Pac-12 squads the Bears will come to face in conference play. Florida has made four straight NCAA tournament appearances and seems to be well on its way to a fifth given how it has opened the season. Florida isn’t just undefeated; it’s been dominant, and it’s fresh off an 81-45 blowout of Milwaukee.

The Gators have proven that they can do more than just beat up on lesser opponents too — a statement 71-55 victory over in-state rival, then-No. 20 Florida State, earned them a spot in the top 25.

The team’s leader is senior Colin Castleton, a powerful forward who makes his presence known at both ends of the floor, averaging 17.3 points per game and 10.3 rebounds. He’ll be a player to watch Monday night and someone the Bears must look to shut down if they hope to remain competitive. Castleton has NBA draft prospects, and he has been a key driver behind the Gators’ hot start.

Cal’s start to the season has been much more rocky, opening the year with demoralizing losses against midmajor foes in UC San Diego and UNLV. The Bears have looked better since falling into an 0-2 hole, knocking off San Diego before grinding out a gritty 75-68 double-overtime win against Southern Utah on Thursday night to crawl their way back to .500.

Whether the Bears should’ve even needed double OT to defeat the 161st-ranked team in the nation is another question entirely, but to Cal’s credit, it was a character-building win that might give the team the momentum and confidence necessary to play up to the level of Florida.

By far the biggest revelation of Thursday night was the transcendent play of senior Andre Kelly, who posted career-highs in both points and rebounds, with 29 and 15 respectively. Perhaps even more impressively, he did so with incredible efficiency, going 11-16 from the field and 6-7 from the free-throw line.

“We were just fighting, clawing back,” Kelly said. “I truly wanted to win this game for my teammates.”

Kelly seemed to do just that, almost single-handedly willing Cal to victory with his dominant double-double that painted him as a legitimate star on the court. His fellow Bears were quieter in the evening, but they’ve shown their ability to take over games too.

In the season opener against UC San Diego, it was graduate transfer Jordan Shepherd who took the lead, pouring in 27 points. Super senior Grant Anticevich has had his moments too, leading the Bears in scoring against both UNLV and San Diego.

It’s encouraging that the Bears have multiple players who can take over a game on any given night, but they’ve struggled with inconsistency. Shepherd, for example, scored just four points in the latest contest against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds, while Kelly was mostly invisible against UNLV with eight points.

Cal has yet to have all three scorers going at once. So while flashes of potential are certainly a good sign, to hit the next level, finding consistency will be key. An impressive individual performance may be enough to eke out a win against a team such as Southern Utah, but it won’t cut it against squads like Florida, or for that matter, most of the teams the Bears will encounter in Pac-12 play.

The Bear’s upcoming journey to the Sunshine State pits them face to face against one of the nation’s best in Florida. The Bears may have a shot at an upset if all three of their streaky scorers can get going at once, though it’s just as possible they get blown off the floor against a red-hot Gators squad. After all, Cal has struggled with much lesser opponents.

No matter the outcome, it’ll be a valuable opportunity to find exactly where Cal stands against a program on the level of many of its top conference opponents, and a team it’ll eventually need to learn how to beat if the Bears want any chance at postseason play.

Benjamin Coleman covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].