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NIT Preview: Cal vs. Utah Valley

Can the Bears re-group and make a respectable NIT run?

Ethan Miller

In stark contrast to Cal's expectation to results algorithm, Utah Valley University was projected to finish seventh in the WAC after limping away from the Great West Conference with a 14-18 record. However, the Wolverines blew away their expectations and won the regular league title with a 13-3 conference record, 20-11 overall. The key win that put them over the top was an overtime victory over conference favorite New Mexico State.

If not for being upset in the conference tourney by Idaho, this very well have been an NCAA tournament team.

Strength of schedule is one of the first things most analysts point to when assessing a mid-major and their body work.

Did Utah Valley beat anyone in the RPI top 50? No.
But is Cal in the RPI top 50? Well, okay then. (We've dropped to #73.)

The Wolverines are a well-coached, fundamentally-sound team. They play solid man-to-man defense with an emphasis on positioning and help. They don't over-extend themselves going for steals, and they don't have much shot-blocking. Despite their lack of size, they're very disciplined with their box-outs and rarely surrender offensive boards.

On offense, they're balanced, don't turn it over, and pass the ball very well. They don't take a lot of three's, preferring instead to do most of their damage inside the arc. They're a more of a jump-shooting team that spreads you out and uses motion sets to create open shots.

This is a veteran squad with four upperclassmen starting and another two upperclassmen as regular reserves. They're used to winning and won't be intimated by the "hostile" Haas crowd.

We might be the bigger squad with arguably more talent. But they're playing better team basketball than we are. If we don't come out with our head's on straight, expect to get our teeth kicked in.

Projected Starters:

C Ben Aird(Sr), 6'9, 210 lbs, 11.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg
F Zach Nelson(Fr), 6'7, 215 lbs, 10.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.4 apg
F Mitch Bruneel(Jr), 6'5, 200 lbs, 10.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg
G Keawe Enos(Sr), 6'1, 190 lbs, 7.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg
G Holton Hunsaker(Sr), 6'0, 175 lbs, 14.0 ppg, 4.2 apg


G Hayes Garrity(So), 6'1, 180 lbs, 8.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg
F Brenden Evans(Jr), 6'5, 200 lbs
F Chad Ross(Jr), 6'7, 220 lbs

Ben Aird is their best post scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker. Although a bit under-sized, he's a savvy veteran who is consistent and highly productive.

Zach Nelson is a precocious frosh wing who does a little of everything. He's most dangerous as a slasher who scores a high percentage and is second on the team in assists.

Holton Hunsaker is their do-everything scorer and playmaker at the point. He's prone to falling in love with his three-point shot, but only hits them at a streaky 30% clip. However, he also leads them in free throw attempts where he's an extremely dangerous 87%.

Mitch Bruneel is just a solid all-around player who is dangerous to leave open. He shot an incredible 61% from inside the arc and 36% from deep. He's also a very good rebounder for a guard.

Keawe Enos doesn't shoot the ball often, however he's very effective when he does pull the trigger. He's by far their best three-point shooter and takes more than 70% of his shots from deep.

Hayes Garrity is their sixth man and brings a decent shooting touch off the bench. Although most of the Wolverines seem to focus on taking good shots, he's got more of a gunner mentality.

Ross and Evans have played every game, but function primarily as defender/rebounders to give the starters a breather.


1) Mindset

If the guys don't want this one, it's a foregone conclusion. Utah Valley is not a gimmicky mid-major that jacks up a lot of threes, runs and guns, or relies on a junk defense. They are a hard-nosed, veteran squad that plays better fundamental basketball than we do on a more consistent basis. The talent and size disparity will only get us so far. And, thanks to a loss of interest from the end-of-the year slump, don't expect a lot of energy from the crowd. I hope the players are embarrassed with how they went out and play with a chip on their shoulder. Honestly, I'm embarrassed that I have to start every preview by mentioning focus, intensity, effort, hustle, and energy.

2) Deny dribble penetration and force them to make jump shots

The Wolverines are a decent, not-great shooting team. They're balanced and have a lot of different guys who can score. However, they're most dangerous on the free throw line where they shoot a very high percentage (75%) as a team. Whether we decide to switch or hedge, we have to stop action going towards the basket and be sharper with our help and rotations. This is a team that knows how to move the basketball and gets a very high percentage of their points off of an assist.

3) Win the paint

As with most games this year, how our bigs fare will be a major factor in how it plays out. If Solomon and Kravish can dominate their counterparts and get them in foul trouble, there's a huge drop-off when they go to their bench. The same could be said for us.

Tip Off: Weds, March 19th, 7:30pm

TV: None
Online: ESPN3
Radio: KGO 810am