Cal's win over Denver last year in Berkeley actually turned out to be one of Cal's better non-conference wins of the year. Arguably speaking, if the Pioneers were worse last year Cal might've been sitting at home in March . . . which, I guess, would have meant one less trip to Dayton, so I'll let you decide how much that matters. But still!
And Cal's win was an impressive one. They dropped 80 points on Denver, the most points the Pioneers allowed in regulation in any one game all season. In fact, Cal's 11 point win was the biggest loss the team suffered all year long. Were the Bears just really on their game that day, or is this a particularly good matchup for Monty's squad? Hopefully the later, but let's dive in:
Can we expect Denver to be as good as they were last year? Tough to say. The Pioneers lost their first game of the year to Iona, which sounds not so impressive. But Iona was an NCAA tournament team last year and the game was played in New York, so it's a result that's easy to dismiss. It's certainly true that Denver has the bulk of their rotation returning, but they also miss the presence of 2011-12 three point ace and leading scorer Brian Stafford.
Kenpom's projections tag Denver as a borderline top 100 team, which is what they were last year as a member of the Sun Belt. They have since moved on to the WAC, a significantly more sensible geography fit if nothing else. Here are three things you need to know about the Pioneers:
1. They play SLOW. As in, slower than USC or Arizona State slow. Tony Bennett slow. It's hard to argue that Cal has played particularly well against slow teams in recent years in part because the majority of slow teams have also been, well, objectively bad (NCAA tourney vs. USF caveats apply). But it's certainly preferable to a matchup against an uber-fast, athletic team like UNLV or Missouri.
2. They're pretty good at home. In 2011-12 they lost just two home games, one of which was in overtime to NCAA tournament bound Iona. This should come as no surprise because they play at altitude, which typically imparts some level of extra advantage for the home team.
3. The offense runs through Chris Udofia. The junior guard is an impressive talent - he has point guard skills in a shooting guard's body. Shooting, passing, drawing fouls; he does pretty much everything on offense well. Expect to see the ball in his hands frequently. This will be an interesting test, because for each of the last few years we knew with certainty that Jorge Gutierrez would be guarded (and quite possibly shutting down) this type of player. When he's healthy, Ricky Kreklow might get the defensive assignment. Tonight I'm guessing Justin Cobbs. Either way, is there a player on the roster who Monty can turn to and ask to stop the opposition's go-to guy? Time to find out.
Tempo Free Preview
Kenpom sez: Cal by 1
Obviously it's much too early for statistically significant tempo-free stats, which means we're only left with the prediction engines. It'll be a month or more before we have potentially-interesting-but-still-misleading numbers.
Keys to the game
Calm, patient ball handling. Denver loves to slow you down on offense and force turnovers as the shot clock winds down. That means that the pressure will be on Justin Cobbs and Brandon Smith to facilitate the offense without giving in to Denver's ball pressure. Cal fans will likely be confident in what Cobbs can do, but this game will be a good test to see if Brandon Smith has put his rough 2011-12 season in the past.
Who guards Udofia and can they slow him down? This was covered above in detail, but it's still critical so I have to mention it again. I don't think Brandon Smith has the size to cover him, and Crabbe may not have the speed. That leaves Cobbs, who was probably Cal's best perimeter defender last year anyway. Either way, we'll get a glimpse at Monty's pecking order defensively.
Dominate the glass. Denver is undersized, and as a consequence they never made an impact on the offensive glass and were prone to getting beaten on the defensive glass. This is a chance for Solomon and Kravish to really go to work to get 2nd chance points against an undersized group of opposing posts. And 2nd chance points could be even more critical if Cal's offense is unable to create great looks with their first shot.