8-2 California takes on the 5-5 Cal Poly Mustangs as the Bears go for their 27th straight win at Haas Pavilion, which would be a program record. The Bears are still without the services of Kameron Rooks, who has been shooting in practice but is not yet ready to start sprinting. Kingsley Okoroh enters play with two or more blocks in 8 of 10 outings; his average of 2.8 swats is currently 19th in the country. Charlie Moore is sixth nationally in scoring among freshmen with a whopping 17.6 points per contest. Ivan Rabb finds himself inside the top 50 having averaged 9.3 rebounds.
Conference play hasn’t yet begun, but Cal Poly actually sits at the top of the Big West standings with a .500 record. After a 10-20 season in 2015-16, that qualifies as a decent beginning. Coach Joe Callero is in his eighth year with the program and guided the Mustangs to a second round NCAA tournament appearance in 2013-14 despite the team’s 14-20 overall record. He is also known for bringing Seattle University into Division I play prior to his departure from campus in 2009. Forward Josh Martin is out for the season with a foot injury, which has tested the squad’s depth.
Projected starting lineup
F Zach Gordon - 6’8” Sr. - Callero deploys him in odd ways. To wit: he played 27 minutes on Saturday but just 4 minutes in his prior appearance. Not that doing so is any colossal waste of skill.
G Kyle Toth - 6’2” Sr. - A sparkling 55% from three-point range (30-55), although he rarely attempts anything else.
G Jaylen Shead - 6’1” So. - Point guard leads the team in assists with 5.2 and has taken a step forward from his freshman season.
G Ridge Shipley - 6’0” Sr. - Trails only Shead in the assists department but is arguably a better ball handler. I can’t help but picture him wearing a captain’s hat.
G Donovan Fields - 5’10” So. - Solid on defense, boasting 1.6 steals per contest. A season-high 17 points made him the only Mustang to distinguish himself during the Fresno State matchup.
G Victor Joseph - 6’0” Jr. - The team’s sixth man and more, he’s a cool 45% from downtown so far. Can challenge for 20 points on any given night but struggled against Arizona State. More Pac-12 challenges await him in the coming week.
F Luke Meikle - 6’9” Jr. - The Washington native transferred from Gonzaga last season. Primarily a rebounder but isn’t opposed to long-range shots.
F Hank Hollingsworth - 6’10” Fr. - Exploded for five blocks back on December 1. Think of him and Gordon as something of a defensive two-headed hydra.
1. Stay focused on defense.
Cal has allowed the 14th fewest points and the 15th lowest opponent shooting percentage in the nation. By contrast, the Mustangs have allowed 48% of field goals to score which is #296 out of 351 Division I teams. If they play with the right intensity, it’s clear that the Bears should have the competitive advantage here.
2. Recognize the one-dimensional player.
Toth doesn’t like creating his own shot, so denying him catch-and-shoot opportunities from the perimeter will be key. The Bulldogs allowed him just two field goal attempts, both from the outside. Unsurprisingly, Fresno won by 14.
3. Exploit the small lineup.
Callero has some bigger options off the bench, but Gordon is the only regular who can attempt to match up with Ivan Rabb. After a frustrating performance against UC Davis, why not give Rabb every opportunity to shine?
4. Swarm the supersub.
Joseph sank 13 threes in his last four appearances, but he can score in more ways than Toth. He could be a good assignment for the speedy Charlie Moore or the taller Sam Singer while on the floor. Starter or no, Cuonzo Martin doesn’t want to spot him 23 points like Elon did on Thanksgiving weekend.
5. Bird is the word.
Fans got a scare when Jabari Bird exited last Saturday’s game with what was described as fatigue, but he’ll be available against Cal Poly. According to Martin: “Having Bird back, a knockdown shooter, that makes a huge difference." That’s especially true if Moore and Grant Mullins are keeping their defenders honest too.
Cal has a 92% chance of securing a victory according to Ken Pomeroy’s FanMatch data. On paper, that still makes it a more interesting game than USC vs. Troy, which I’ve dubbed the Trojan Civil War.
Meaningless prediction: Cal 81, Cal Poly 68
How to follow: Pac-12 Networks/KGO 810 AM, 5 PM PT on Saturday, December 17