Let's get this out of the way now: Arizona St. isn't a good team this year. They've got all kinds of injury issues, they lost key leaders from last year's team and have a ton of new players to integrate into a system that isn't the easiest to learn. They struggle to score for long stretches and Herb Sendek's usually imposing match-up zone has all kinds of holes. ASU's situation was bad enough yesterday that Sendek played Marcus Jackson for 15 minutes . . . and it was the first 15 minutes he'd played all season long.
So in one sense it shouldn't be a huge deal that Cal won in Tempe. But it's a good perspective game, because Cal could very easily be in Arizona St's situation. The Bears lost significantly more talent from 2009-10 than Arizona St. did, and they have had plenty of turbulence lately with the sudden transfer of Gary Franklin. Depth is minimal and players have to spend time out of position. Walk-ons are getting significant playing time.
And yet, the Bears were a few made free throws and one national-player-of-the-year-candidate away from a road sweep in the 2nd weekend of conference play. Sure, Cal is inexperienced and undermanned. But they are competitive. Players are obviously growing into roles and learning on the court. And, as Arizona St. clearly demonstrates, that's something to be thankful for.
As best I can tell the Bears won this game for two reasons: An absurd rebounding advantage and excellent 3 point shooting. Cal's early double digit lead was mostly the function of awful ASU offensive execution and shooting rather than great offense from the Bears - ASU actually shot a higher percentage in the first half! Unfortunately, foul trouble meant that Cal had to play the end of the first half with floor combinations I never thought I'd see - things like three true freshmen, one sophomore and a walk on at once - and ASU took advantage to cut into Cal's lead, and carried that momentum into the second half to keep the game close the rest of the way.
The highlight for Cal fans is undoubtedly a third straight impressive performance from Allen Crabbe. His 17 points and 8 rebounds jump out, but I'd like to highlight two numbers even more impressive: 40 and 0. The first is the number of minutes he played, and the second is the number of turnovers he committed. A true freshman played 40 minutes and didn't turn it over once. And it wasn't for lack of handling the ball. Crabbe took 14 shots and earned 2 assists and looked comfortable the entire game, even when Arizona St. ratcheted up the pressure and started trapping in the back court after falling behind.
Beyond Crabbe's growth in confidence Cal received contributions from all the usual suspects. Jorge was a pest on defense and, much to my joy, hit his threes when they were open. Harper didn't have the best day from the field but was more active on the boards than usual. And Markhuri picked up another double double and even notched a couple blocks. Get up, Big Fella!
What probably kept the game closer was a lack of production from anybody other than the usual foursome. Cal's bench recorded two points, two assists and five rebounds. I'd consider that concerning if it wasn't a pretty normal state of affairs. Anything the Bears can get from Bak, Solomon, Murray and Carter will likely be a nice bonus from here on out.
And we're all aware of the upcoming schedule, which only makes this win even more important. You could argue that Cal is more likely to go 0-4 in their next four games than steal a win, so at least we don't have to worry about an 0-7 start to conference play. But considering how the Bears played in the desert this weekend I have no reason to believe that they won't find themselves right with the Washington and L.A. teams come crunch time. And maybe this time the calls and/or bounces will fall our way for a big upset. Dare to dream!