Cal earned a hard-fought overtime victory against UC Irvine with a very shorthanded roster, and again face a tough challenge against in-state foe San Diego State Monday night in Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. Both squads have dealt with injury problems thus far as Malik Pope — a projected starter for SDSU — has yet to play in any of their three games so far this season.
The Aztecs are coming off of a 2015-16 season (28-10, 16-2) which was one of the most dominant in Mountain West history as they won the conference by three games in the regular season over Fresno State, but slipped up in the conference championship game to the aforementioned Bulldogs which snapped their streak of six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
Last year’s Aztecs squad defeated Cal 72-58 in Las Vegas and they return a large portion of that team. Third leading scorer Winston Shepard and second leading rebounder Skylar Spencer are the big departures from last season’s squad, but the Aztecs remain a dangerous team. Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley, last season’s two leading scorers, are back in a big way this season and are carrying the load for the Aztecs in scoring. The Aztecs received 23 of 27 first-place votes to win the conference in the preseason media poll.
San Diego State started the 2015-16 season with a 69-59 win against San Diego and they followed that up with a heavy 69-48 loss at Gonzaga. The Aztecs took a short-handed roster into their third game against NAIA opponent San Diego Christian and won 81-58. One player who did not suit up for SDSU is big man Malik Pope, who has yet to play at all this season and is questionable to play against the Bears. Pope was projected as a starter for SDSU coming into the season. His replacement in the season opener was Montaque Gill-Caesar, a Missouri transfer who was named the preseason newcomer of the year in the MWC, but he struggled in that contest and was replaced as a starter by Valentine Izundu against Gonzaga. Izundu picked up an injury in that contest, which saw Caesar inserted back into the lineup against San Diego Christian. Izundu should be ready to go against Cal, but its uncertain who will start down low with Zylan Cheatham.
G #42 Jeremy Hemsley (SO, 6-3, 190): 20.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3 apg, 30.7 mpg, .561 fg%, .700 ft%, .600 3pt%
G #3 Trey Kell (JR, 6-4, 210): 18.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.3 spg, 33.7 mpg, .439 fg%, .773 ft%, .231 3pt%
G #4 Dakarai Allen (SR, 6-5, 200): 8.7 ppg, 6 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.7 spg, 2.3 bpg, 27.7 mpg, .476 fg%, .556 ft%, .167 3pt%
F #14 Zylan Cheatham (SO, 6-9, 220): 9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.7 spg, .450 fg%, .818 ft%
C #45 Valentine Izundu (SR, 6-10, 240): 1 ppg, 4 rpg, 2 bpg, 20 mpg
G #11 D’Erryl Williams (SR, 6-3, 205): 3.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1 spg, 22 mpg
G #23 Montaque Gill-Caesar (SO, 6-6, 215): 3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 20 mpg, .188 fg%, .500 ft%, .167 3pt%
F #24 Nolan Narain (RS FR, 6-9, 220): 2 ppg, 10.7 mpg
Gill-Caesar was expected to have a big impact for the Aztecs this season, but he has had a lot of trouble staying healthy and has missed a ton of practice time over the last year or so, which has caused him to be a bit rusty so far. Pope, as mentioned earlier, was expected to start at center but has yet to play. Matt Shrigley has also been limited thus far due to injury. There was a lot of hype around incoming freshman Jalen McDaniels and what kind of impact he could have on the Aztecs, but he has yet to play much at all.
The Aztecs are a mixed bag right now. They have yet to develop much of a rhythm due to injuries, and, as of now, are overly reliant on Kell and Hemsley to score nearly all of their points. Kell and Hemsley, predictably, shot well against San Diego and San Diego Christian, but struggled against Gonzaga. The duo combined to shoot just nine of 28 from the field against the Bulldogs, which resulted in SDSU shooting 28.6 percent as a team. The Aztecs are still stingy at times defensively and held Gonzaga to 39.4 percent shooting in that game, but they did allow San Diego to shoot 49 percent from the field. Interestingly enough, of their three opponents so far it was the Bulldogs that struggled from beyond the arc the most. Gonzaga shot 8 of 24 from deep, San Diego made 6 of 15, while San Diego Christian connected on 11 of 29 downtown.
Overall, this game might come down to who gets more players back in time for the game. Cal should play tight defense on Kell and Hemsley to force the rest of their squad to win the game. SDSU doesn’t have the scoring depth to stay in a game against a talented team like Cal if those two aren’t firing on all cylinders. With that being said, if Cal is still without Rabb, Bird and Mullins then the Bears could struggle in this one. If those three are back then I like Cal’s chances to avenge last season’s defeat to the Aztecs. Another key to victory for Cal is if they can force SDSU to play individual basketball. During their first two games they totaled just 12 assists, but committed 29 turnovers. That ratio improved significantly against San Diego Christian, but that is to be expected when playing an NAIA opponent. During their first two games guys were driving to score instead of driving to set up a teammate. They did a better job against SDC, but it remains to be seen whether or not the Aztecs can continue to do so against better competition.
I’ll leave you with a post-game quote from SDSU Head Coach Steve Fisher following their win against San Diego Christian:
“Am I happy where we’re at? You know, I like our – I really like our team. They care, they want to get better and we will get better. So I like the makeup. We need to get more hands on deck; more guys ready to play and that will make everybody a little better. But I enjoy being with them. They practice hard, they want to get better, they want to win, they want to play for their teammates. So it’s a good group.”
What are your thoughts on the matchup? Sound off in the comments below!