In a perfect world, going toe to toe with a ranked team while undermanned and arguably overmatched should entitle you to some sort of consideration. (Actually, in a perfect world, Palo Alto would be bull-dozed, Mack Brown would be wearing an orange jumpsuit instead of an orange polo, and Cal would have a 2004 Rose Bowl Championship banner. For starters.)
But instead, our beloved Bears are rewarded for their inspiring effort with a road trip to the state of Washington and a re-match with the struggling Washington Huskies. Disneyworld, this ain't.
The last time these teams squared off, it was sheer carnage. The Bears ran into the buzz-saw of a Husky team playing mad and fired up after being upset by the Furds for their first conference loss. Besides being absolutely dominated by Isaiah Thomas, the other Huskies were nailing pull-up three's from the locker room. Throw in a number of sloppy turnovers with a smattering of blown layups and you get Cal's only blow-out loss in conference play.
Previous recaps here and here.
But what in the name of Bak Bak has happened to the UW team favored to run away with the Pac-10? After roaring out to a commanding lead in the Pac-10 race, they've managed to drop 3 straight, including being swept on the road by the Oregon schools. It's hard to imagine after watching them get and hit any shot they wanted in Haas, but they've been shooting a woeful percentage. Throw in turnover issues, and inconsistent effort with defense and rebounding...and you have a team that looks nothing like the conference alpha dogs. Perhaps most surprising is that their leader, Isaiah Thomas, is really struggling. Besides shooting 23% from deep and 29% overall, he has 16 turnovers in the past three games. As Avinash has pointed out in the past, UW is heavily reliant on their up-tempo transition attack. When they're not generating turnovers and able to push the ball for easy baskets, they're apt to settle for quick, contested jumpers. Against Cal last time, the poor shot selection didn't matter because they were going in. Over the past few games, the quick shots and forced shots have lead to easy offense for the opposing team.
But, of course, it's too much to ask for that pattern to continue. Realistically speaking, you have a Cal team whose starters recently played heavy minutes on the road against a deeper, more athletic, more explosive team that should have the proverbial fire of desperation lit under their collective derrieres. On paper, there's really no reason to expect anything other than a repeat of the last go-around. In fact, if home-cooking gets the Huskies running and gunning again, it could get ugly quickly. To say that the Huskies play better at home than on the road is a bit of an understatement. They're 11-0 this year, to be precise.
Twin towers Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Aziz N'Diaye have a significant height advantage inside. Justin Holiday is versatile and savvy. Venoy Overton is a lock-down defensive pest. Terrence Ross, Scott Suggs, and CJ Wilcox are all tremendous athletes. And realistically, Isaiah Thomas should be able to drink Brandon Smith's milkshake whenever and wherever he wants.
Kenpom certainly predicts that we're going to get run.
But screw math anyway. I still like our guys.
1) Defense Bears, Defense! - Considering that UW has struggled mightily to move the ball against the zone for the past three games, I'd expect us to throw it almost exclusively at them. Considering that we're at a major disadvantage playing one on one against them at most positions, I think Monty uses the zone to protect against fatigue and fouls, and takes his chances that the Huskies can't hurt us consistently from deep.
2) Duel at the Point - Brandon Smith is not the same player he was on January 16, 2011. Surprisingly, neither is Isaiah Thomas. Smith doesn't have to be dominant or out-play Thomas. He just has to be tough, play smart, and take care of the ball. As a well-trained Cal fan, I don't expect Thomas's struggles to continue.
3) Offensive Execution - Perhaps the biggest improvement with the Cal team is their ball movement on offense. Instead of a disjointed, confused effort, we more often get a crisply-run symphony of five players moving together with confidence. When we lose confidence and start settling for early shots, our offense stagnates and tends to lead to transition baskets for the other team. Considering the Huskies' collective shooting slump, we need to avoid jump-starting them with anything easy.
4) The Bench - I know Monty is playing to win. But it would be really nice to get some consistent production from Richard Solomon, Bak Bak, and Emerson Murray. No matter how well-conditioned or tough-minded they may be, leaning so heavily on the starters has got to be a concern as we move through the 2nd half of the season.
It's weird to think of a road game against the pre-season Pac-10 favorite with anything other than trepidation. But, there is just a toughness and determined attitude to this Bears team which forces you to believe that they're going to give the Dawgs one heck of a game. Let's do this. Go Bears!