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Cal Men's Basketball vs. Virginia: Preview

The Bears face what will almost certainly be their toughest test of the season when they face Tony Bennett and the ultra-efficient Virginia Cavaliers Tuesday night.

Tie clips are great for keeping that annoying dangle close to the torso.
Tie clips are great for keeping that annoying dangle close to the torso.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Our Bears may face a better team than Virginia this year. But they probably won't play a better team than Virginia on their home floor. The Cavaliers enter this game 9-1, just off of scoring an eye-popping 1.43 points/possession against top 10 Villanova. Eight of those nine wins have come by double digits

Remember when we played Wisconsin, and everybody wanted to talk about their defense, when it was really the offense that was lights out stuff? This year's Virginia team is looking like a similar story - for the first time ever in Tony Bennett's head coaching career, he appears to have a team with an offense that is ahead of the defense.

Bennett has, as always, one of the slowest offenses in the country. He also has, as always, a defense that forces teams to use as much of the shot clock as possible. Death, taxes, etc. I was so happy when Virginia hired him away from Washington State, but I suppose I can handle the rare non-conference match-up.

Win or lose, we find out a lot about the Bears on Tuesday night. We find out if this team. Can the Bears get their shots and draw fouls against an excellent defense? Will the motivation of playing a top ranked team on national TV bring out the type of focus and effort necessary to play better defense? In short: we will get a big clue whether this is a team that can grow into something more than it has shown thus far.



PG London Perrantes, 6'2'' Jr.
G Darius Thompson, 6'4'' So.
G Malcolm Brogdan, 6'5'' Sr.
F Isaiah Wilkins, 6'7'' So.
F Anthony Gill, 6'8'' Sr.


Devon Hall, 6'5'' So.
Mike Tobey, 7'0'' Sr.
Marial Shayok, 6'5'' So.

Listed above are the five players who started against Villanova. Wilkins isn't a guaranteed starter, although he'll play significant minutes. And if Cal plays Virginia close, this is probably more or less the eight player rotation we'll see Tony Bennett throw out.

Brogdan and Gill are the biggest stars, but pretty much everybody is hyper efficient. Darius Thompson actually played significant minutes on Cuonzo Martin's Sweet 16 team at Tennessee before transferring when his coach left. Nobody takes many 3s as an individual, but all of their guards can hit them.

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Kempom: Virginia 74, Cal 60, 92% chance of Virginia win

Sagarin Predictor: Virginia by 14


Keys to the Game

1. Rabb vs. Gill

This is a really great match-up without the whole 'disciplined, crafty senior vs. talented, precocious freshman' cliche narrative. We'll find out exactly how advanced Ivan Rabb's defense is when he faces a player who shoots 60% from the field, rebounds well on both ends, draws almost 3 times as many fouls as he commits and never turns the ball over. For Cal to win this game, Rabb needs to at least battle Gill to a draw, and he absolutely has to avoid foul trouble and play 30-35 minutes. It's a tall ask, but Ivan has met or exceeded expectations every step of the way so far.

2. Is the Virginia defense vulnerable?

Four teams this year have managed to average more than a point/possession against the Pack Line Defense that Virginia is so famous for. Two of those teams have a weaker offense than Cal does. Might the door be open for a more productive game than anybody is expecting?

Virginia's 2 point % defense (listed above) and free throws allowed rate (164th in the country) suggest that their defense just isn't staying in front of their assignments as well as you would typically expect from a Bennett team. Cal would seemingly have the horses to exploit those types of issues.

3. Who is going to attempt to stop Malcolm Brogdan?

UVA does all kinds of interesting stuff to get Malcolm Brogdan looks. Stagger screens, back screens, clear outs so that he can make cuts in the paint. It's like trying to stop Wyoming's Josh Adams, if Wyoming also had 4 other efficient scorers that you can't cheat off of.

Does that mean that this is a game for Roger Moute a Bidias to get minutes as a defensive specialist? I'm not sure if Cal can sacrifice offense for defense in a game like this, but there's not really anybody else on the roster that stands out as an obvious solution.

4. Defensive boards

Some things are gonna happen, and there's not much to do about it. Virginia will probably turn the ball over, like, 4 times in the entire game because they are a brilliant ball-handling team, and Cal never ever forces turnovers. Virginia will probably make shots, because that's what they do. Gill accepted, Virginia probably won't draw a ton of fouls because their offense is designed to pass into easy looks rather than attack off the dribble a ton.

What does that leave as a potential swing factor when Cal is on defense? Rebounds. Cal is a respectable 47th in the country, securing 75% of available defensive rebounds, but Virginia rebounds 37% of their own misses, 35th in the nation.  Cal has to keep Virginia off of the glass if they want to keep pace. Ivan's ability to stay out of foul trouble (see item #1) is critical here.

5. Getting hot from deep (PUT THE BALL IN THE NET)

For whatever struggles Virginia is going through on defense (it's all relative because right now they appear to be very good rather than top 5 or top 10) the pack line still prevents teams from getting looks inside with any frequency. Teams typically attempt many 3 pointers against the Cavaliers in part because those are the shots that are available. You know what that means: Time to go out and actually hit them.

Also, if this is the game where we finish all of our drives with made baskets, that'd be nice. Part of the reason that UVA's 2 point % defense hasn't been great is because they don't have a big time shot blocker or rim protector.