Cal men’s basketball kicks off its conference schedule Thursday night when Oregon State makes the trip to Haas Pavilion. It’s been an up-and-down start to the season for the Bears, but they’ve built momentum as of late and are faced with perhaps one of their most winnable conference games amidst a daunting Pac-12 schedule.
If the Bears hope to exceed the low expectations set upon them — they were pegged to finish last in the Pac-12 preseason media poll — they have a great opportunity to do just that and start their conference slate off on the right foot against the Beavers.
Cal had a less than ideal start to the season, dropping its first two games to mid-major opponents in UC San Diego and UNLV. What followed seemed to be a case of one step forward, two steps back for the Bears. They eked out unconvincing wins against other low-ranked teams in San Diego and Southern Utah before being blown out once they faced their first taste of elite competition, as they were played off of the floor by No. 23 Florida in a 60-80 loss.
Ever since that defeat, though, the Bears looked to have turned a bit of a corner, the extent to which fans will find out Thursday. Cal gave another of the nation’s best all it could handle, taking No. 21 Seton Hall to the final shot in a 62-59 defeat.
The blue and gold then put together perhaps their most complete performance in their most recent matchup against Fresno State with a convincing 65-57 victory. And unlike the Bears’ earlier wins, the Bulldogs were no slouch, entering the game with an undefeated 5-0 record.
The Bears were effective on both ends of the court to hand Fresno State its first loss. Gritty defensive performances have become a hallmark of Cal’s current era under head coach Mark Fox, and Sunday’s game was no different, as the Bears held a previously rolling offense to under 60 points with a well-executed defensive game plan.
Lacking the talent on paper to keep up with many of the elite programs that call the Pac-12 home, Cal has historically relied on slowing the game down and playing tight defense to keep the scoreboard close. It’s been the key to its success in upset victories in recent years and indeed will be critical if the Bears hope to steal wins against Oregon State and beyond.
“We need to be a low turnover team and we need to be a great defensive team,” Fox said.
What was different about the game against Fresno State was that, for the first time in a while, the Bears’ offensive play matched or even exceeded their defensive performance against a quality opponent.
Cal’s offense was firing on all cylinders in multiple ways. It knocked down the three-ball, shooting a scorching hot 7-16 from beyond the arc, and made their free throws, putting together a 10-12 performance from the charity stripe.
Perhaps most impressive, though, was how the Bears were able to get multiple players involved, as three scorers ended the night with double figures. Inconsistency has been a struggle all season, so seeing the team put together such a balanced offensive performance was a shock.
If Cal hopes to continue its upward trajectory against Oregon State, replicating such a performance and building on defensive intangibles will be key.
“We’re in a good place and I think we’re getting better,” said graduate transfer guard Jordan Shepherd, who led Cal in scoring against Fresno State with 17 points. “Starting off the season was a little rough but we’ve picked up our defensive intensity, our physicality and our rebounding … we’re in a pretty good place.”
Pac-12 play will be a different animal entirely, but the Bears got perhaps the best draw possible with their opening game, facing a Beavers team that is trending in the opposite direction and a far cry from the squad who made a miracle run to the Elite Eight in 2021’s March Madness Tournament.
Oregon State sports a 1-6 record, having dropped six straight after a season-opening win. They look dysfunctional, and if Cal can put together a well-rounded display, it should have a chance to extend the Beavers’ losing streak.
“We’re ready,” said senior forward Grant Anticevich. “We’ve played some good competition thus far and we’ve been able to work on the things we need to improve on as a team … We’re really hitting our stride and … we all feel ready on both ends of the floor to get into Pac-12 play.”
Cal will have a chance to show that it’s prepared for conference play Thursday against a beatable Oregon State team. If the Bears can put together a complete performance, they have a great opportunity to keep their momentum going and prove that they can be more than the team picked to finish last in the Pac-12.
Benjamin Coleman covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].