Familiarity breeds contempt. Between the time-honored tradition of the Big Game, the back-and-forth ownership of the precious Axe and a superiority complex founded in a taller clock tower, perhaps no two teams in the Pac-12 are more familiar than Stanford and Cal.
After sweeping the Oregon schools on the road, the Bears somehow find themselves amid another losing streak — falling to both Colorado and Utah at home. Though boasting a conference record that is significantly better than that of Cal, Stanford is currently somehow in quite the same boat as its rival, shouldering two consecutive defeats by the same mountain teams. Luckily for both teams, a rare seven-day break provides the opportunity to regroup. Now, the two teams must choose to do so may very well determine who walks out of Haas Pavilion a victor come Saturday night.
The two rivals’ last faceoff was Feb. 1: the Bears’ first game of the season without senior forward Andre Kelly when news of his season-long absence was yet to be announced. All facts considered, Cal’s ability to match Stanford blow by blow before ultimately falling just short of a victory is quite a good sign of the matchup to come. Though the blue and gold failed to rack up many wins during their long stretch of conference play, there is no doubt they are wiser and more experienced for it. The Cal team who welcomes Stanford into Bear territory Saturday night is certainly not the one who stepped into Maples Pavilion so many weeks ago; the Bears know that, and come Saturday night, their fans might as well.
Cal head coach Mark Fox emphasizes the importance of this brief but paramount period of rest.
“It’ll really be the first time we’ve had a couple practices in a row to address how we can really play without Andre and see what tweaks we can make where we have a couple days to work on it,” Fox said. “We’ll have a couple days to work and keep trying to get better.”
It’ll be interesting to see what adjustments the Bears make to fill the deep void left by the absence of their star power forward. The high screen and roll — the Bears’ go-to play — just happened to be Oregon’s kryptonite; however, Stanford’s size in the paint may force Cal to go a different route.
With one of the most efficient big men in the conference gone, the Bears have lost their primary weapon. However, it doesn’t mean they’re out of ammunition.
The X factor? Jordan Shepherd. Although this is the graduate guard’s first and only year in a blue and gold uniform, what a year it has been. Shepherd has solidified his position on the Cal roster as an indispensable scorer and playmaker — leading the team in scoring with 14.1 points per game. He has been on the court more than 30 minutes in four out of the last five Cal games, and his explosion for a career-high 33 points led the Bears to an upset over Oregon. From assisting to scoring, Shepherd’s got it all — except consistency.
The Bears can’t afford to rely on Shepherd’s performance alone to propel them to victory, nor expect a 33-point game every other night. Even if Shepherd was LeBron James — which he isn’t — he would still have off games; if this Cal season has taught the fans anything, it’s that the basketball gods never stay on one side for long; the taste of victory is short-lived, and that’s what makes it so sweet.
The Cardinal aren’t exactly all rainbows and ponies at the moment, either; another year on the sidelines of the Big Dance has head coach Jerod Haase’s seat heating up. Between the Bears’ ability to regroup, home-court advantage and possibly the luck of the draw, the matchup is truly a toss-up. The only thing Cal fans can do is fill up the stands and hope for the best.