A little less than a month ago, Cal hosted Washington State, went through the motions in a sleepy game, and emerged with an easy 21 point win. USC aside, Washington State was pretty clearly playing the worst basketball in the conference.
Why? They were missing their only above average offensive player in DaVonte Lacy.
In case you think I'm being hyperbolic, Kenpom has a list of every player in the Pac-12 who has a high enough usage percentage on offense to qualify. There are 73 players who qualify. The second Washington State player (Junior Longrus) is 52nd on that list. Lacy is 2nd amongst players in his usage level, which is an indication that he's producing at a level that should merit all-conference consideration.
In other words, Lacy inherits the Klay Thompson/Brock Motum honorary title of 'only good Washington State player on a bad team' award that has been awarded ever since Tony Bennett decided to take his talents to Virginia, where he currently has built an elite defense. I apologize to any Washington State fans who are currently reading - I'm just trying to describe the situation, and my knife twisting is merely a random side-effect.
Lacy fully deserves the title. After a rough first game back from injury (oddly, a win over Washington) he poured in 34 points in a near win at altitude in Boulder, then scored 22 against Utah. Lacy is an excellent shooter, he converts inside, he doesn't turn the ball over, and he gets to the foul line. He's going to be a tough defensive challenge for (I'd guess) Tyrone Wallace.
Is Lacy enough to beat Cal by himself? Well, if the Bears aren't playing focused basketball, maybe. Washington State shoots a ton of three pointers, and maybe this is the random game where they actually hit them. Maybe Cal's offense gets left on the side of the road in rural Washington, getting buried in the snow.
Lacy is option one and two (and probably three), Que Johnson is next, and Woodridge is the point guard that (when things are working) makes things happen. Shelton is the only interior player who poses a legitimate threat - Longrus barely shoots enough to qualify for conference leaderboards and Railey's shooting percentage (38%) is shocking for a seven footer. Kernich-Drew mostly just shoots threes (32%, so yeah).
Our Computer Overlords Predict
Cal 67, Washington St. 62, 73% win likelihood.
Washington State has won two conference games, both at home. How did that happen? It happened when Utah shot so poorly that they had almost as many turnovers as field goals, and it happened when Washington became only the 2nd team in the conference to allow Wazzu to score more than a point/possession in a game.
Barring a statistical outlier of a shooting performance, Cal's road to a loss in this game seems like the Utah version. Is iffy as Cal's effort has been at times lately, their defense will still be better than Washington's. But could you imagine a sluggish, travel weary Cal team lacking any kind of incision on offense, settling for bad looks and letting Wazzu hang around? Basically, the 1st half against Washington State at Haas, but for 40 minutes?
That said, if Cal shows up and plays good basketball, they can win this one comfortably, by double digits. Can we have that, please?
Keys to the game
1. Ball control - Washington State does one thing at an above-average level for a major conference team: defensive rebounding. As Cal isn't big on the offensive glass, 2nd chance points will be limited. Thus, it's simple: If the Bears come out with focus, they'll control the ball and avoid turnovers. If they're not focused, they'll pass the ball to Wazzu defenders just like they did against Stanford.
2. Focus on Lacy - Harsh but true: there will be a player on the court for Wazzu that maybe doesn't need a ton of defensive attention. I don't know how to structure the defense to take advantage, but if we can shade players in the direction of Lacy, it should help neutralize the one player who is a legit threat to go off for 20+ points. Since Wazzu is so limited in terms of interior threats, I wouldn't mind seeing Solomon and Kravish really focusing on contesting Lacy shots any time he ventures anywhere near the key.
3. Make shots - Cal hasn't shot well since, oddly, beating Washington State. It's as if they've played a bunch of good defenses lately! But seriously, an above average shooting game would really be nice. Maybe we'd be better off saving it for Washington or UCLA, but this team is due for one of those games where most everything does into the net.
Man, those were the laziest keys to a game I've ever written. The thing is that Washington State is kind of uniformly bad at every one of the four factors in a bland kind of way. Barring something weird, Cal just needs to play high intensity, high effort basketball to win.