Cal's first marquee Pac-12 matchup of the season is tonight against the #17 Colorado Buffalos. Last year the Buffs gave Cal two of their toughest games of the season. Although I was a little skeptical that Colorado could maintain the same level of success they had last year without Chucky Jeffery, the Buffs appear to not have missed a beat under Linda Lappe.
Colorado enters with an 11-2 record, with a very understandable road loss to top five Louisville and a somewhat more perplexing 10 point defeat on the road to USC. A home win over Iowa is probably the most impressive win on the resume so far, although a two point road win over UCLA isn't too shabby either.
In the absence of Jeffery, the scoring burden has been spread out amongst a variety of players. Lexy Kresl, Brittany Wilson, Arielle Roberson and Jen Reese are all scoring in double figures, and as a result Colorado has one of the more balanced attacks in the conference.
The Buffs hang their hat on defense. The defense was elite last season, and although it might not be quite as good this year it's still plenty good enough to give some teams fits. Colorado wants to make you take bad shots, and they want to limit you to just that one shot.
Our computer overlords predict
Colorado by 4.44
That's right, the Bears are underdogs. This is arguably Cal's toughest Pac-12 game of the season, non-Stanford division. Cal and Colorado have put together similar resumes, and I think without Gennifer Brandon, the Bears and Buffs were more or less equally matched teams. Thus, Colorado is the favorite because of their sizable home court advantage. Granted, the Bears have Brandon back now, and that may or may not have a sizable impact on the predictions a computer would spit out based on Cal's performances without Brandon. I'd like to think that with that addition, this game is basically a coin flip.
Keys to the game
Reassert dominance on the glass: Currently, Colorado has the best rebounding percentage in the Pac-12. Now, that number is almost entirely based upon non-conference schedules that aren't necessarily comparable, but the point is that Colorado is one of the best rebounding teams in the conference. Cal, quite simply, hasn't been a great rebounding team without Gennifer Brandon. But Gen is back, and so the timing is perfect for Cal to go out and remind the entire Pac-12 that when the Bears have their full roster there isn't a team on the west coast that can outrebound them.
Keep playing disciplined, foul free defense: The Buffs have made a killing at the line, both because they draw lots of fouls, but also because they're an above average free throw shooting team. The good news is that Cal has been one of the best teams in the country at avoiding putting their opponents on the charity stripe. Even better, Cal's reticence to foul shooters has not resulted in a lack of defensive intensity. If the Bears can keep doing what they've been doing on defense they should stand a good chance of escaping Boulder with a win.
Use that depth: As I mentioned in my recap of the Oregon game, Cal should suddenly have a very strong 10 player rotation available. I generally prefer a tighter, eight player rotation, although reasonable minds may differ. But when you're playing at altitude it's the perfect opportunity to take advantage. It's great to know that Reshanda Gray can take a five minute breather and Kyra Dunn can come in to lock down the paint on defense. It's encouraging to know that either Hind Ben Abdelkader or Mercedes Jefflo can come off the bench to spell a starting guard. And having Courtney Range as a sixth woman is an absurd luxury most teams would be desperate to have. Frequent substitutions might be in the cards tonight.