Now comes the point when the team needs to reach up and grab the brass ring they've climbed within reach of. There's no longer any danger - they're nominally 'in' the Tournament now, barring a spectacular run of bubble-busting performances. Just go out, play free-and-easy basketball, and rip that bye-seed down off the pole!
Tip-off from Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, CA is set for 4:30pm on Saturday. Coverage can be found on Pac-12 Network, with Mark Johnson and the radio call coming on 850 KOA.
Click below for the preview...
When last we met -
Riding high off of a nail-biting win in Palo Alto, CU headed to Berkeley last year looking for a statement-making sweep in the Bay Area. Sound familiar? Yes, in a duplicate scenario to this season, the Buffs last played Cal hoping to capitalize on a crucial win over Stanford. Instead, behind one of the worst offensive performances of the Tad Boyle era, they got embarrassed by the Golden Bears. It was a 62-46 blowout, which wasn't nearly as close as the lopsided score would indicate.
|It was like shooting into a brick wall. From: the Daily Californian|
Defensively, it was the story of a key tactical error. Defensive specialist Andre Roberson was tasked with guarding Allen Crabbe, Cal's do-it-all offensive threat. While Crabbe was muted, only scoring eight points on 4-10 shooting, Roberson was pulled far from the basket by his assignment, leaving the gates open underneath for lesser-known players like David Kravish and Tyrone Wallace. The unheralded pair made the Buffs pay for over-thinking the situation, and owned the paint to the tune of a combined 30/22.
|Kravish and Wallace were just too much when allowed unfettered access to the paint. From: the AP|
The Golden Bears in '13-'14 -
While much of the setup to this year's game is reminiscent of the 2013 fixture, one thing that isn't similar is the Bears' recent run of play. Last season, the win over CU was Cal's seventh in a row - a streak that propelled them into the NCAA Tournament and a second round win over UNLV. This season, it has been a reversal of fortune over the final stretch of regular season play, with Cal dropping eight of their last 12 contests (including four at home) after opening Pac-12 play 5-0. Sure, one of the four wins was against the #1 Arizona Wildcats, but it's hard to overlook the unmitigated disaster that has been the back-end of their schedule. Said head coach Mike Montgomery, "Emotionally, we're really spent."
|The win over Arizona was a singular moment of joy lost amidst a sea of struggle for Cal.|
Caveat acknowledged, the breakdowns since they beat WSU on January 18th to move to 5-0 are disturbing. Only four times since, against UW, WSU, and USC twice, have they finished a game north of 1.0 ppp. Against any team worth their salt, Cal has struggled offensively, and is only 1-7 in recent games when scoring fewer than 70 points. They need another scorer, and help simply seems to have eluded them.
|Seriously, how did they lose to USC?|
Still, this is a dangerous, capable team. If they can just get their heads in order, and find a fifth piece to the puzzle to compliment cemented starters Justin Cobbs, David Kravish, Richard Solomon, and Tyrone Wallace, they'll be deadly in whatever tournament they end up in. To that end, I expect the recent slide has them on the outside of the the Dance looking in, but it's not definitive. A win tomorrow over CU and a deep run in Vegas could be enough to stave off their NIT fate. I would expect Cal to come out hungry, as a result. They still have tons to play for, especially on Senior Night.
Star Players -
The Golden Bears are lead by senior Justin Cobbs, who had his moment in the sun earlier this season when his fall-away 17-footer sunk Arizona at Haas. The putative point guard, Cobbs is more of a two trapped in a point's role, but there's little doubt that Cal should be putting the ball in his hands as much as possible, and he excels (top-40 assist rate), regardless. Cobbs is on the floor more than any other player on the roster, and rewards that faith with 15/3/6 averages that stand up with most other floor generals around the country. His three point shooting could be better (29% this season), but I think that may be a product of his role as the team's fall-back offensive piece when and if plays break down. At the end of the the day, he can and will hit from the outside.
|When Cobbs is on, giants are felled.|
|Solomon is massively improved over his former form.|
|Wallace is a dangerous matchup challenge.|
Regional coaching legend Mike Montgomery continues to prowl the sidelines in Berkeley. Now in his 32nd year as a D-1 head coach, he's starting to pile up historic numbers of victories, even passing the great John Wooden earlier this season for 27th on the all-time wins list. Possessor of one of the most impressive coaching resume's in the country, only once has he coached a team to a losing record. Yeah, that's pretty good.
|Monty is one of the best coaches in the history of basketball in the West.|
(My record on the season: 15-5. Against the spread: 11-9. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +1.2 pts/gm)
Lines as of Friday @ 6pm - CU +4 1/2
The Bears are, admittedly, 'emotionally spent' at the worst possible time. Meanwhile, CU is coming off of a gritty, emotional win over Stanford, and playing better basketball now than they were a month ago. The trend-lines would certainly seem to be leaning towards the Buffs... which is exactly why I'm going to pick Cal to win. I've found that, when everything seems to be going one way in college sports, it's usually a good time to go in the opposite direction.
In that vein, I suspect CU might be overly satisfied with their Tournament 'clinching' victory the other night, while California will be playing for their post-season lives. Further, I think Solomon is about to re-ignite the interior defensive issues of recent weeks. Cal may be lost, and their home court advantage may be worth less than ever with the stands looking bare in recent weeks, but I'm still taking them to win at home, along with the cover. Basketball is weird like that.
Cal 61 - CU 54
GO BUFFS! PROVE ME WRONG, AND TAME THE BEARS!