New year, new Bears? Cal looks to upset USC, UCLA

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Antonio Martin/Staff

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Cal men’s basketball certainly started the new year on a high note, increasing its home winning streak to nine games with a blowout victory over Arizona State and steadily building its winning percentage. While it’s important not to count one’s chickens before they hatch, the current Bears resemble a significantly more polished and formidable team than they did a year ago; if they continue to perform consistently on the road as they do at home, it’s safe to say that Cal fans should expect an exciting 2022 Pac-12 season.

Now that the Bears have successfully mopped up relatively mediocre competition and are riding a five-game winning streak overall, there’s no doubt that spirits are high both on the court and in the locker room. However, it’s critical for the Bears to keep an eye on their egos as they continue conference play to face daunting Pac-12 opponents.

“We got two great opponents coming, just outstanding,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “Everyone on their team knows how to win, and they’re used to winning. They have NBA first round picks. It’ll be a massive challenge for us.”

The massive challenge in question would be the two Pac-12 giants currently on the horizon for Cal: No. 7 USC followed by No. 5 UCLA, which will wrap up Cal’s long seven-game homestand that began Dec. 8. The Bears dipped their toes into conference play with a win over Arizona State, but the talent gap between the competent 5-8 Sun Devils and the undefeated at 12-0 Trojans is no joke.

Fox, however, understands this sentiment: “We can’t sprain our wrists patting ourselves on the back because we won a home game. This is a good win versus a good team. But we need to continue to grow.”

This growth needs to be more than substantial if the Bears hope to stand a chance against the undefeated USC team. The Trojans fierce talent on the court is no secret as they have consistently recorded NBA first round draft picks for the past three years in a row, not to mention how NBA star DeMar DeRozan – whose back-to-back buzzer beaters propelled the Chicago Bulls to the top of the Eastern Conference — was a former Trojan himself. The USC roster is led in points and rebounds by forward Isaiah Mobley, who also happens to be the brother of 2021 NBA third overall pick Evan Mobley, who is now on the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Bears showcased a night of defensive talent against Arizona State and will undoubtedly need to build on their Sunday afternoon performance to have any hope of slowing down the Trojans.

The two teams’ last faceoff led to an anticipated Cal loss of 68-76 at home Jan. 23, nearly a year ago. Thursday will be the Bears’ opportunity to prove just how much work they have put in this past year and display their newfound roster depth. The Bears’ roster has the potential to form lethal one-two combinations, as opposed to their past mistakes of depending on a single pair of hot hands at any given time and playing the “your turn my turn” game.

The game against Arizona State definitely saw the team playing as a unit; it’s a long shot to say that the Bears will be the ones to snap the Trojans’ winning streak and hand them their first taste of defeat, but if they continue to improve their game, nothing is impossible. USC has been out of action since Dec. 18 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so if the Bears are able to surprise a rusty Trojans team, they may be able to pull off the improbable upset.

If the Trojans seem menacing — currently sitting at No. 7 in The Associated Press’ top 25 poll — they are two places behind the Bears’ next opponent: No. 5 UCLA.

Like USC and much of the rest of the sports world, UCLA is suffering firsthand the woes of COVID-19 as seven of its past eight games have either been canceled or postponed. Knowing the Bruins’ athletic abilities and professionalism, their layover will only increase their formidability as an opponent. Leading scorer Johnny Juzang has solidified his position on his team as a score facilitator and aggressive playmaker, and disrupting him will be the Bears’ top priority Saturday. On the defensive end, the blue and gold should be careful not to get caught ball-watching, an easy thing to do with nimble high-scoring guards such as Juzang.

Kicking off the strenuous Pac-12 season with the two of the top three teams in the league, it won’t be an easy next few months for the Bears. Nevertheless, it seems like the blue and gold have a clear goal in sight.

As senior forward Andre Kelly puts it, “Our goal: top four. We think we’re one of the top four teams in this league, so we’re gonna play like that every night, coming out trying to prove that to everybody. Approach each game with the right mentality, at the end of the year, we’ll be right there.”

Graduate guard Jordan Shepherd echoed Kelly’s sentiments: “We think we’re capable of being a top four team in this league.”

As far as New Year’s resolutions go, top four sounds like a good one for the Bears.

Tina Xue covers men’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected].