USA TODAY Sports
Rumor has it that this is Cal's first tournament game in a Pacific time zone since 1960. Let's not belabor how the stars might have aligned to bring our sturdy Golden Bears to San Jose. It's a golden opportunity; let's plant a sloppy one on this gift horse's kisser and ride as far as we can before anyone is the wiser. Standing in our way are the Runnin' Rebels from UNLV. It was heartbreak in Haas Pavilion when these teams last met. Despite heavy underdog status, the Bears had the upset in hand until Quintrell Thomas laid in an air-balled jumper at the buzzer for the win.
Before we let "we should have won last time" buoy any false confidence, keep in mind that the Rebels gained reinforcements since the last game. For the Rebels, injured star Mike Moser is back in the lineup. He may not be 100%, but he was an honorable-mention AP All-American last year. They've also integrated Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch into their rotation well enough for him to win MWC Defensive Player of the Year.
UNLV is one of the nation's toughest defensive teams with plenty of size, athleticism, and quickness at every position. They're a great shot-blocking team and use their pressure man to kick-start a dangerous transition game by forcing turnovers. As we know from painful experience, they're also quite adept at crashing the offensive glass.
Their offense might not have a traditional point guard, but senior Anthony Marshall pushes the ball and attacks the rim well enough to set the table for his teammates. As part of their run and gun attack, they love to push it and are more than willing to take the open three early in the clock. They might not shoot an incredible percentage from deep, but they have four starters who can get hot on any given game.
If we start this game sleep-walking, we're at risk of getting blown out. You'd think that guys would be properly motivated...but you could have said the same thing before the conference tournament or the last home game of the season with a title on the line.
F Anthony Bennett(Fr), 6'8, 240 lbs, 16.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg
F Mike Moser(Jr), 6'8, 210 lbs, 7.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg
G Katin Reinhardt(Fr), 6'5, 210 lbs, 10.1 ppg, 2.5 apg
G Bryce Dejean-Jones(So), 6'5, 200 lbs, 10.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg
G Anthony Marshall(Sr), 6'3, 200 lbs, 10.5 ppg, 5.8 apg
F Quintrell Thomas(Sr), 6'8, 245 lbs, 3.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg
G Justin Hawkins(Sr), 6'3, 190 lbs, 5.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg
F Khem Birch(So), 6'9, 220 lbs, 7.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg
Our last preview can be found here:
Get a good look at Anthony Bennett before he takes his game to the league. He has an NBA-ready body with an advanced offensive skill set. Although he's at his best overpowering guys down low, he often bails out the defense by falling in love with his jumpshot. You can't just play off him, however, because he shoots their highest percentage from three.
Reinhardt and Dejean-Jones are spot-up shooters who can get streaky hot. Reinhardt had a career-high 21 in the MWC semi-finals while Dejean-Jones sank five threes in the finals.
When he's healthy, Moser is a dangerous finisher who can score in a variety of ways in the paint. He is allegedly still rounding into form after missing extended time off/on with injuries.
Marshall is more of a combo guard than a true point. He's a powerfully built slasher who can hurt you from the free throw line as well as beyond the arc.
We already know that Thomas is a bruiser who is tough on the glass. Hawkins has struggled with his shot this year, but is used as their 6th man and defensive stopper. After becoming eligible, all Birch did was lead the league in blocks en route to DPOY honors.
Cal's Defense vs. the UNLV Offense:
Although Bennett is their leading scorer, any one of their top eight are capable of going off for a big game at any time. Monty has already talked about how guys need to be ready to win their individual match-ups because they can't afford to give much help. We'll need to channel up our anti-Oregon game plan which emphasized getting back in transition and protecting the defensive glass. Conventional wisdom says that with so many dangerous outside shooters, it's hard to see us going zone for very long unless it's just a change of pace. However, Monty threw convention out the window against Arizona who has a similar style and lineup to UNLV. Even though they were the #1 3-pt shooting team in the Pac-12, they also lack a true point guard. In that case, the 3-2 zone really frustrated Lyons with Crabbe's length at the top of the key. If the Bears do go zone for extended periods of time, it'll put a lot of pressure on Solo/Kravish to cover shooters in the corners while still getting back to box out.
1) Cobbs vs. Marshall: Justin Cobbs needs to move his feet and deny dribble penetration. It'll be a dunk-fest if Marshall is allowed to break down the defense at will.
2) Crabbe/Wallace/Kreklow vs. Reinhardt/Dejean-Jones: We need to fight through screens and close out without jumping. These guys love to catch and shoot, but aren't as dangerous off the dribble. The last couple of games, we've gotten sloppy with our close-outs again and have relapsed into a bad habit of jumping at shooters. Once the defense starts over rotating, we give up too many easy shots.
3) Kravish/Solo/Thurman vs. Bennett/Moser/Thomas: Our bigs have to play their best game of the year. This means no cheap fouls and no losing focus. Right from the opening whistle, we need to be physical, intense, and beat the UNLV post players to their spots. We can't expect the ball to come to us; we need to hit their guys when boxing out, then go attack the ball in the air.
Cal's Offense vs. the UNLV Defense:
This would be a great time for Crabbe to have another game like his effort against Arizona in Tucson. Teams have had great success lately taking him out of the offense by using a bigger defender to disrupt dribble hand-offs and to deny him the ball off of curls. Monty is good at drawing up reversals and counters, but it takes better passing and team movement. When our offense stagnates, it often looks like Cobbs/Crabbe are the only ones cutting which lets the defense focus entirely on them.
Our best bet is that we're able to put together a determined team effort like the home win over Colorado or either upset over Oregon. It's likely that UNLV will take away a lot of what we like to do and make our half court sets look ugly. We lose confidence and give up on running the offense. Selectively running before they set their defense may not yield layups, but open shots off the secondary break might be better than anything we could get late in the clock. We just have to be careful not to get drawn into running at their tempo. They're the deeper team and our reserves are ill-suited to run and gun against them.
1) Crabbe vs. Crabbe: It's all about mental toughness. No need to be a hero on every possession. But set the tone defensively, on the glass, and with good decisions on offense. Don't let UNLV's ball-denial defense take him out of the game.
2) Cobbs vs. Cobbs: After breaking himself out of a shooting slump, he's been rock-solid and clutch as a scorer down the stretch. Where he needs to tighten up his game is with careless turnovers. Sloppy passes which lead to empty possessions are always hard to overcome. Against the Runnin' Rebels, this type of mistake could be fatal.
3) Wallace vs. Wallace: Stick to your strengths and play under control. Right now, it seems like there's a one per game quota for charging and an ill-advised three. Let's skip that for this game.
4) Kravish/Solo/Thurman: Opportunities down low may be tough to come by against their shot-blockers. If there was ever a time not to back down and finish strong, this would be it.
5) The Kreklow Factor: He still doesn't seem to be moving as well as he did in the late fall. But, he does offer something Cal hasn't had all year; a third perimeter shooter to punish the defense for over-playing Crabbe and Cobbs.
We've seemed more comfortable this year playing with a chip on our shoulder as the underdog. Thanks to the last two games, call that mission accomplished. Now let's turn San Jose into Bear Territory.
Game Time: Thursday, March 21st, 4:37pm(PST)