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Cal men's basketball vs. Utah preview

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Can the Bears keep rolling and polish off a critical home sweep of the Mountain schools? More importantly, can they stop Jakob Poeltl's reign of terror?

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

When: 4:30 pm PT TODAY
TV: Pac-12 Network

From Frederick II the Quarrelsome to Ferdinand III, from Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Wolfgang Puck, Austrians have a long history of bringing sorrow to this world, whether through warmongering, religious fanaticism, furloughing  hard working state employees/Cal bloggers, or pioneering the concept of a Food Network celebrity chef.

Now, we have Jakob Poeltl. He may not be a Hapsburg, but to the best of my knowledge a Hapsburg has never attempted to go for an efficient 20-10 against our Bears.

This is a critical game for both teams who have designs to challenge Arizona for the conference title. Winning this game would be a major step in that direction for both squads.

But for the neutral fan, this game is all about the individual match-up between Jakob Poeltl and Ivan Rabb. Poeltl is probably the best interior player in the conference, but if he's not the answer would be Ivan. Both players display an all-around game with the ability to dictate action on both ends of the floor, something that nobody else in the conference can yet say. They may not be guarding each other one-on-one for the entire game, but their production will be closely watched and compared.

It's been an interesting, up-and-down season so far from the Utes. They have played a tough schedule and own a number of impressive wins, most prominently a neutral court, overtime win over Duke. But their two losses were not particularly close; losing to Miami (Fl) and Wichita St. is no shame, but getting trucked is a bit concerning.

For Cal, this is a game that they need to win if they have conference title aspirations. They should have conference title aspirations.

Roster

Starters

PG Lorenzo Bonam, 6'4'' Junior - JC transfer PG showing well rounded offensive game
G Brandon Taylor, 5'10'' Senior - Big spike in turnover %, fall in shooting percentages from last year. Odd.
G Jordan Loveridge, 6'6'' Senior - Arguably best shooter in conference.
F Kyle Kuzma, 6'9'' Sophomore - Mini-Poetl on offense, iffy on defense.
C Jakob Poeltl, 7'0'' Sophomore - Pac-12 POY candidate does everything well

Bench

G Isaiah Wright, 6'2'' Sophomore - back up ball-handler, very limited on offense
G Dakarai Tucker, 6'5'' Senior - 3 point sniper, attempts a 2 point shot roughly once a game.
F Chris Reyes, 6'7'' Junior - Standard low usage back up big
F Brekkott Chapman, 6'8'' Sophomore - See above.

Note: Kenneth Ogbe is an efficient wing who has been out injured for six straight games. Utah needs him back, but there's no reason to think that he'll be back after missing the Stanford game on Friday. He did make the trip, so who knows?

Obviously Poeltl is the star, but Jordan Loveridge isn't far behind. He's shooting 32-70 from three this year and has enough of a dribble drive game to get into the lane on occasion. Throw in the efficient Lorenzo Bonam and Kyle Kuzma, and Utah has a solid starting unit.

It falls off a bit after those four, however. It's not surprising to have low-usage guys off the bench, but Utah is really lacking anybody who can legitimately impact the game when starters go out.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is Brandon Taylor, who is a black hole surrounded by a bunch of good shooters and decision makers. He's never been a point guard, but you generally can't let a 5'10'' shooting guard play major minutes if he's going to be shooting 23% from deep with a 27% turnover rate. And this is one season after he shot 43% from three for the season! Utah fans are openly speculating that his shooting slump has become a mental block.

Even with Loveridge struggling, Poeltl and company have been enough to keep Utah's offense afloat. It's the defense, shockingly, that has been somewhat suspect. More on that below.

Statistical Preview

When Utah has the ball

Category Utah
Offense
California
Defense
D-I Avg
Adj. Efficiency 110.2 45 95.0 33 102.5
Avg. Poss Length 16.9 153 18.3 331 17.1
Four Factors
Effective FG%: 56.2 18 42.0 7 49.5
Turnover %: 18.2 148 13.7 348 18.6
Off. Reb. %: 31.2 151 25.8 44 30.3
FTA/FGA: 43.7 44 32.1 80 36.5
Miscellaneous Components
3P%: 35.2 130 37.0 269 34.4
2P%: 58.3 7 36.7 1 48.4
FT%: 72.0 91 72.7 306 69.1
Block%: 6.8 37 12.9 48 9.3
Steal%: 8.4 140 5.5 345 8.8
Style Components
3PA/FGA: 38.3 92 28.2 14 35.2
A/FGM: 57.6 72 50.8 125 53.0

all numbers via Kenpom

Probably the most intriguing match-up here is between Utah's excellent 2 point % offense and Cal's best-in-the-whole-entire-friggin'-country 2 point % defense. Note that Utah likes to take a lot of 3s, and other than Taylor they've been going in at a solid clip.

The other big battle will be fouls. Utah draws a lot of them (mostly Poetlt and Kuzma) and Cal, relative to everything else on defense, picks up a few too many. Utah's path to victory likely requires foul trouble for our bigs.

Also, unrelated to Utah specifically, I love that Cal has been, in part, forcing opponents to have such long possessions. Some of that has been the teams Cal has played, but the defense has quietly been forcing long possessions, particularly of late.

When Cal has the ball

Category California
Offense
Utah
Defense
D-I Avg
Adj. Efficiency 109.0 55 97.4 63 102.5
Avg. Poss Length 17.1 173 17.4 230 17.1
Four Factors
Effective FG%: 53.4 52 46.8 84 49.5
Turnover %: 17.9 123 13.6 350 18.6
Off. Reb. %: 35.2 47 24.9 27 30.3
FTA/FGA: 40.8 88 25.5 12 36.5
Miscellaneous Components
3P%: 34.9 144 38.8 314 34.4
2P%: 54.0 40 41.0 16 48.4
FT%: 66.9 248 69.0 165 69.1
Block%: 5.9 14 12.8 50 9.3
Steal%: 7.5 57 6.4 325 8.8
Style Components
3PA/FGA: 34.5 191 33.7 125 35.2
A/FGM: 48.7 250 41.3 13 53.0


Utah's offense has had an interesting shift from 2014-2015. They've gone from 5th to 84th in eFG% allowed, and from 124th to 12th in free throw rate allowed. Just based on the numbers, I'd be inclined to wonder if Larry Krystkowiak has over coached based on the new rules to avoid fouls, at the expense of giving up too many good looks. BlockU has generally been unimpressed with Utah's perimeter defense, so it just as easily could be the impact of losing all-everything Delon Wright, the lynch-pin in Utah's defense even more than Utah's offense. Either way, will Cal's attacking players find easy lanes and help defense that's not particularly interested in fouling?

Probably Utah's biggest focus on this end will be to keep Cal off the glass, something they've been doing well against teams that don't have Ivan Rabb. I'll be interested to see how well they deny 3 point opportunities for Jordan Mathews, who has been getting off about 6 looks from deep per game. Utah hasn't been great about denying looks behind the arc.

Also, there should be maybe 10 combined turnovers in this game, because the two defenses are 4th to last and 2nd to last in forced turnover percentage.

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Kenpom: Cal 74, Utah 69, 69% chance of a Cal win.

Sagarin Predictor: Cal by 5.2 points

Our computer overlords both narrowly see Cal as the better team, but the difference is largely within the margin of error. Cal is favored because this game is being played in Berkeley.

It's also worth noting that Cal's computer numbers don't weigh recent performance over early season performance. If one is of the opinion that Cal has turned a corner, and that their level of play against Virginia, Davidson & Colorado is more representative than the lost week in Vegas, then one could argue that Cal should perhaps be favored by a bit more. That plus the potential altitude-teams-on-the-road bonus makes me marginally more confident of a Cal win in these circumstances.

Keys to the Game

1. The foul battle

Cal fans are now hyper-alert to the possibility of losing Ivan Rabb (amongst other players) for long stretches. And it will certainly be a point of emphasis for Utah to get some fouls on Cal's bigs. But it goes just as much for Utah - Poeltl has to stay on the court - for his offensive efficiency, for his rebounding, and for his rim protection.

Cal showed that they can win games without 30+ minutes from Ivan, at least against iffier conference opponents. Utah is probably set up to better take advantage of stretches where Ivan isn't on the floor than Colorado.

2. Can Utah's perimeter defenders stay in front of Ty and Jaylen?

As noted above, Delon Wright is gone, and I'm not convinced that Utah will be as tight as they have been the last few years at preventing dribble penetration, particularly when they face two players with NBA level ability to get to the lane. The more stress Cal can put on Poeltl and Kuzma to provide help, the better.

3. Continue to run teams off the 3 point line

In a league that isn't very 3-point-happy, Utah shoots the highest percentage of their shots from behind the arc (38.3%) led primarily by Jordan Loveridge. Cal, meanwhile, leads the conference in preventing 3 point looks (28.2%). Can Utah's offense still create those looks, or will they get stifled the same way that most of Cal's recent opponents have been stifled?

4. How efficient will Poeltl be?

Dane Pineau, St. Mary's: 5-11, 10 points
Anthony Gill, Virginia: 5-14, 17 points
Josh Scott, Colorado: 4-16, 16 points

Those are the numbers of three very good, very efficient, high usage bigs Cal has faced recently. All three have either had less efficient or lower usage games (or both!) against Cal compared to their season averages. If Cal can do the same to Poeltl, Utah probably won't have much recourse. Expect plenty of Rooks and Okoroh as Cal uses size, height, and fouls to slow him down.

5. Making shots: Probably necessary?

Cal went 1-10 from three in the first half against Colorado, and built a 13 point lead anyway because their defense was so damned good (and also because they went 11-17 from 2 but bear with me). Then, when Cal DID start hitting from deep they blew the game open, eventually taking a 23 point lead before a late Colorado run in the last 5 minutes. If Cal's defense is legitimately this good, it's not as imperative that Cal shoot the ball well in tough games.

But man, when JMat is raining 3s, when Ty and Jaylen are finishing at the rim, when Ivan is hitting on his post moves and getting lob opportunities . . . it's damned fun and it makes it near impossible for lesser teams to keep up.