Having lost three straight games entering Saturday’s home game against No. 1 Arizona, California had an opportunity to not only grab a resume-building victory but also right the ship ahead of the stretch run. And the Golden Bears did just that, with Justin Cobbs’ fadeaway with nine tenths of a second remaining giving Cal the 60-58 victory. On Wednesday night, with rival Stanford in Berkeley, Cal had a chance to keep the momentum rolling while temporarily moving into sole possession of second place in the Pac-12.
The Golden Bears failed to take advantage of the opportunity however, coming out lethargic against Stanford and the Cardinal were willing to grab control of the action. The end result: an 80-69 Stanford victory, with Dwight Powell (22 points, 11 rebounds and six assists) playing well defensively against a Cal front court that was coming off of an very good night against Arizona.
Chasson Randle added 19 points and Anthony Brown 16, with Josh Huestis tallying nine points, five rebounds and four steals for the visiting Cardinal. Outside of a loss at Oregon State (which beat UCLA on Sunday) Johnny Dawkins’ team doesn’t have any glaring defeats on its resume, which could set them up for a run at the first NCAA tournament berth of Dawkins’ tenure in Palo Alto.
As for Cal David Kravish finished Wednesday’s game with 12 points and six rebounds, but Richard Solomon (1-for-7 FG) accounted for just six points and nine rebounds with Powell being a big reason why. To be fair Solomon wasn’t alone in his struggles, as Bears other than Kravish, Cobbs and Wallace (57 total points) combined to shoot 4-for-20 from the field. Foul shooting was also an issue, with Cal making just 12 of its 21 attempts and being outscored by 16 points (Stanford made 28 of its’ 35 attempts) on the night.
Cal scored 34 points in the paint and grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, but the free throw disparity and the fact that Stanford was able to score 21 points off of 13 Golden Bear turnovers resulted in a fourth defeat in the last five games. The problem for much of the current stretch has been consistency, especially when it comes to shot selection. It’s February and there are still times in which players struggle with understanding the difference between being aggressive and forcing things that aren’t there.
After beating an Arizona team that will be without Brandon Ashley for the remainder of the season, Cal looked to be headed in the right direction with a chance of climbing back into the Pac-12 title race should the Wildcats slip up. But in order to do that the Golden Bears need to take care of business at home, something that didn’t happen against Stanford.
Cobbs finished with 19 points and seven assists for the Bears, who entered the game having lost three in a row following a 5-0 start to Pac-12 play. That included an embarrassing loss at USC and an overtime loss to Arizona State at home on Thursday night.
The importance of this win goes well beyond Cal simply moving up the Pac-12 standings, however. This is a team that was sitting on the wrong side of the bubble. Entering the day, Cal’s resume included zero wins over probably tournament teams unless you think Oregon, who is sitting at 3-6 in the Pac-12 as of today, will be able to turn things around.
If you’re looking to improve an NCAA tournament resume, there isn’t a much better way to do it than beating the No. 1 team in the country.
Here’s the other part of it: Cal is a dangerous basketball team.
The Bears are trending towards sneaking into the tournament as a 12 seed, assuming they can find a way to consistently beat the teams they are supposed to beat, but this is a team with the talent to make the Sweet 16. Cobbs headlines a really talented perimeter attack that includes a trio of big, athletic scorers — Jabari Bird, Jordan Mathews and Ty Wallace. Throw in Richard Solomon and David Kravish, and you’re looking at a team that can matchup with anyone from a talent perspective.
But the Bears have no depth, especially in their front court. And Bird, Mathews and Wallace all have proven that the only thing they can do on a consistent basis is to play inconsistently.
Cal may only play three more tournament teams the rest of the season: UCLA and Colorado at home and Arizona on the road. This was the best chance that the Bears were going to get at earning a marquee win, and they capitalized.
We know Arizona sits at the top of the Pac-12 Power Rankings right now.
That much is obvious. They’re the No. 1 team in the country, and the Pac-12 doesn’t currently have anyone else sitting in the top 20. That’s not a tough one to figure out.
What is tough, however, is trying to determine just who is the second-best team in the league.
In the preseason, the consensus seemed to be Colorado. They have been trending upwards for a couple of years and brought back the core of a team that, on paper, looked like a top 15 team. Wins over Kansas and Oregon helped solidify that logic. But they lost star point guard Spencer Dinwiddie for the season with a torn ACL over the weekend and collapsed in the second half against Washington after Dinwiddie went down.
Oregon is talented and fun to watch. They can score with the best of them. They also haven’t played a lick of defense in the new year. The same can be said for UCLA. Can you trust a team to win games if you can’t trust them to get big stops?
That brings me to Cal, who is the only team other than Arizona currently sitting at 4-0 in league play. The Bears beatdown Washington in Haas Pavilion on Wednesday night after winning their first three Pac-12 games on the road.
Most importantly, the Bears are finally getting healthy after dealing with injuries to a number of key players early in the season. Their perimeter attack is loaded. Justin Cobbs is a first-team all-Pac 12 point guard. Ty Wallace, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews are all explosive scorers that can go for 20 on a given night. Richard Solomon is averaging a double-double while David Kravish isn’t that far behind.
A couple of ugly, early losses hurt the Bears, but this team seems to be peaking at the right time. Front court depth is a major issue, but given the fact that every other team in the league (save for Arizona) has a major issue of their own, I don’t think it’s crazy to say that Mike Montgomery has himself the biggest challenger to Arizona’s throne.
Without two key contributors in Jabari Bird and Ricky Kreklow, California was shorthanded entering its game at rival Stanford on Thursday night. But instead of worrying about what they were lacking the Golden Bears simply competed, and with three mainstays leading the way Mike Montgomery’s team picked up a much-needed 69-62 win.
Sophomore wing Tyrone Wallace, whose opportunities have gone up with Bird sidelined with an ankle injury, reached double figures for the fifth straight game with 20 points while also grabbing five rebounds. A 34.2% shooter from the field as a freshman, Wallace entered Thursday’s game shooting better than 46% from the field and averaging three more points per game (up to 10.6 from 7.4). Wallace has been an improved player for the Golden Bears, but even with that being the case Thursday’s result served as another reminder of how important the senior tandem of Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon is to Cal.
Cobbs scored 18 points and dished out five assists, but to summarize his performance with just those two numbers would be an injustice. The senior made multiple key plays down the stretch, either by hitting important shots or setting up his teammates, and his defensive effort against Stanford’s Chasson Randle (15 points on 6-for-16 shooting) proved to be key as well.
And in accounting for 14 points and 13 rebounds, Solomon tallied his fifth double-double of the season after posting just three all of last season. Cal needed him to become a more consistent player in the middle, and to this point in the season Solomon’s done just that.
Stanford outscored Cal 30-20 in the paint but Thursday’s defeat will represent a missed opportunity, as they failed to retain control of the game after going on a 7-1 run to take a 56-54 lead with 5:17 to go. But that wasn’t as much about what Stanford failed to do as it was California refusing to go away. And with their two seniors and an improved Wallace leading the way, the Golden Bears are more than capable of winning enough games to get back to the NCAA tournament.
With Ricky Kreklow out after breaking his right hand California entered Sunday night’s game at Creighton shorthanded, and things would get even worse in their 68-54 loss to the Bluejays. Late in the first half freshman Jabari Bird, who moved back into the starting lineup in place of Kreklow, went down with a right ankle injury and did not return. Without those two perimeter options the game became a struggle for the Golden Bears offensively, as they shot 36.4% from the field and 5-for-24 from beyond the arc.
Now Creighton certainly deserves credit for this, as their work defensively in the half-court and on the boards made life difficult for Cal. Greg McDermott’s team not only posted its best points allowed per possession number since their win over Arizona State on Sunday night, allowing Cal to score just 0.87 points/possession, but they also completed many of those defensive possessions as they rebounded 76.3% of Cal’s missed shots.
Creighton’s defense helped them navigate a slow start offensively, and by the end of the game Doug McDermott tallied a double-double (20 points, 11 rebounds) and Austin Chatman (11 points) and Grant Gibbs (ten) reached double figures as well.
As for California the offensive struggles reveal the fact that for all the talent at Mike Montgomery’s disposal, this team is still a work in progress due to the youth of many of those pieces. And if injuries become a major issue the process becomes even more difficult. Guards Justin Cobbs and Tyrone Wallace combined to score 25 points, but they did so shooting 8-for-23 from the field.
It can also be argued that senior center Richard Solomon (six points on 2-for-3 shooting) didn’t get enough quality looks inside, and Cal needs offensive balance in order to be at their best. David Kravish can provide offense as well for the Golden Bears, and this tandem will be need to be productive consistently when Pac-12 play begins.
While Sunday’s result certainly represents a missed opportunity for Cal from a resume standpoint given their losses to Dayton, Syracuse and UCSB, with their “best” win coming against Arkansas, the bigger concern is this team’s health. Kreklow’s going to be out of the lineup for the foreseeable future, and that was known entering the game. But if they lose Bird as well, the growth of the other freshmen and Cal’s interior play become even more important.
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.
To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of our preview lists, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.
Basketball has five positions, but the way that the sport has grown, particularly at the collegiate level, has produced hybrid players, unusual roster makeups and far too many teams with players that don’t fit into a typical positional category. Few teams actually field a traditional starting five, which is why CBT decided to make our positional rankings reflect that.
Lead guards are the term we will use to define a team’s primary ball-handler. Different systems require different qualities from their lead guards, with some needing the floor general to be a primary scoring option while other systems prefer a player who will primarily play the role of distributor. This list will include “true” point guards, combo-guards, shoot-first point guards and everything in-between, so long as it is the player that gets his team into an offensive set.
Here is our top 20:
1. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State): Smart surprised more than a few people with his decision to return to Stillwater for his sophomore campaign, and he’s a big reason why the Cowboys are expected to contend in the Big 12. Smart averaged 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game as a freshman, and he should be even better as a sophomore.
2. Jahii Carson (Arizona State): The electric Carson was a huge reason why the Sun Devils were able to entertain thoughts of an NCAA tournament bid for much of the 2012-13 season. After averaging 18.5 points and 5.1 assists per game as a freshman, it’ll be interesting to see what Carson can do for an encore as he looks to lead Arizona State to its first NCAA appearance since 2009.
3. Aaron Craft (Ohio State): Craft’s been praised for his defensive prowess throughout his time in Columbus, and the departure of Deshaun Thomas could mean more points from the senior. As a junior Craft, whose three-pointer pushed the Buckeyes past Iowa State in the Round of 32, posted averages of 10.0 points, 4.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game.
4. Shabazz Napier (UConn): Napier was asked to lead the way for a program ineligible for postseason play last season and he certainly didn’t disappoint, posting averages of 17.1 points, 4.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game. Now back in the postseason mix, the senior should receive even more national attention.
5. Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado): The 6-foot-6 Dinwiddie may be the best on-ball defender in America, and offensively he’s developed into one of the tougher match-ups at the position as well. Dinwiddie averaged 15.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game as a sophomore.
6. Andrew Harrison (Kentucky): Kentucky fans expect things to be far different this season, with Andrew Harrison being one of the many reasons why. Andrew, teaming up with twin brother Aaron, averaged 15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists as a senior in high school and is one of the nation’s best newcomers.
7. Quinn Cook (Duke): With the senior trio of Curry, Kelly and Plumlee gone the Oak Hill Academy product will be one of the leaders for the Blue Devils. Cook took a major step forward as a sophomore, averaging 11.7 points and 5.3 assists per game and ranking second in the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio.
8. Semaj Christon (Xavier): Christon was phenomenal in his first year with the Musketeers, posting averages of 15.2 points and 4.6 assists. As he becomes a better shooter and cuts down his turnovers, he’ll only get better. I know Doug McDermott is in the Big East now, but don’t be surprised to see Christon in contention for Big East Player of the Year is Xavier has a big season.
9. Michael Dixon Jr. (Memphis): Dixon didn’t play at all last season after being dismissed from the Missouri program. But his arrival at Memphis is expected to pay dividends for Josh Pastner’s Tigers, as Dixon was Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year in 2012 (13.5 ppg, 3.3 apg).
10. Kendall Williams (New Mexico): The reigning Mountain West Player of the Year will once again lead the way for the defending Mountain West champs. Williams, who scored 46 points in a win at Colorado State last season, averaged 13.3 points and 4.9 assists per game in 2012-13 and his assist-to-turnover ratio ranked third in the Mountain West.
TEN MORE NAMES TO KNOW
11. Chaz Williams (UMass): Williams nearly made the decision to go pro during the summer after averaging 15.5 points and 7.3 assists, and his return to Amherst makes the Minutemen a player in the Atlantic 10 race.
12. Justin Cobbs (California): With Allen Crabbe off to the professional ranks, Cobbs will get a chance to show the country how good he really is.
13. Deonte Burton (Nevada): The Wolf Pack won’t get much attention in the Mountain West race this season, but Burton certainly is worth watching. He averaged 16.3 points as a junior.
14. Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga): Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris overshadowed Pangos last season, but don’t forget about just how good he was as a freshman.
15. Jerian Grant (Notre Dame): Grant is the best guard in one of the best perimeter attacks in the country. Eric Atkins, his back court mate, could very easily be listed here as well.
16. Trever Releford (Alabama): Releford’s role as a point guard will only increase this season with Alabama losing guys like Trevor Lacey and Devonta Pollard.
17. Joe Jackson (Memphis): Jackson was Conference USA Player of the Year, the best player on a team that won more than 30 games and posted huge numbers — 13.6 points, 4.8 assists, 51.9% FG and 44.7% 3PT.
18. Chris Jones (Louisville): Just how good will Jones end up being remains to be seen, but he has plenty of hype as the JuCo transfer tries to replace Peyton Siva.
19. Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette): Payton’s numbers in the Sun Belt last season — 15.9 points, 5.6 boards, 5.5 assists, 2.4 steals — were legitimized when he made the U19 USA team.
20. Olivier Hanlan (Boston College): Hanlan is one of the most underrated players in the country. He averaged 15.4 points as a freshman for one of the ACC’s sleeper teams.