9-1 Virginia heads into Haas Pavilion to take on a 9-2 Cal team that is certainly comfortable on its own court. The Bears’ 81-55 win over Cal Poly on Saturday was sparked by a 21-3 run to close out the first half. That set a new home winning streak of 27, but it’s about to be given its sternest test in a long time. When these teams met last December, the Bears dropped an overtime heartbreaker on the road by the score of 63-62. While Jaylen Brown and Jordan Mathews are no longer with the team, the returning Cal players will certainly be looking for payback in front of a raucous home crowd.
Virginia is #12 in the Associated Press Poll and #10 according to the USA Today Coaches Poll. The last time Cal faced such a highly regarded opponent at Haas was last February 11 when the Bears smoked Oregon 83-63. The only blemish on coach Tony Bennett’s record this season is a December 3 home loss to #25 West Virginia. That defeat ended a 24-game win streak of their own at John Paul Jones Arena. Bennett is a no-nonsense guy, which resulted in the dismissal of Memphis transfer Austin Nichols after just one game.
Projected starting lineup
G Devon Hall - 6’5” Jr. - His 5.8 points per game don’t knock you over, but Hall can hit the occasional long-range shot and crash the glass when called upon.
G London Perrantes - 6’2” Sr. - The Los Angeles native wants to make an impression in his home state. Had a season-high 19 points in a narrow win over Ohio State.
G Darius Thompson - 6’4” Jr. - Has gone cold the last couple of contests but is still pushing 40% from three-point range thanks to strong play in November.
F Isaiah Wilkins - 6’7” Jr. - Does a little of everything. Racked up at least one block in nine straight games to go with 1.7 steals per contest. Also a skilled rebounder and occasional playmaker.
C Jack Salt - 6’11” So. - The Cavaliers mix and match with their big men, so the pivot from New Zealand doesn’t have gaudy numbers other than his 64% shooting from the field. No word on whether he’s seen the 2010 Angelina Jolie flick.
G Marial Shayok - 6’5” Jr. - Born in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, he managed to more than double his 2015-16 scoring average to 9.1. However, he hasn’t played greater than 20 minutes in any contest this year.
G Kyle Guy - 6’3” Fr. - Really an X factor for Virginia. He has come on strong recently, shooting 6-10 from downtown in the last two matchups.
F Jarred Reuter - 6’7” So. - News flash! He doesn’t have Salt’s height, but has proven himself as an efficient scorer nonetheless.
F Mamadi Diakite - 6’9” Fr. - Hailing from Guinea, he has bolstered the sterling defense and already boasts 17 swats.
1. Break the ceiling.
The most points Virginia has allowed in a victory this season is 61. They’ve held three squads under 40, and Iowa managed only 41. Even their defeat at the hands of the Mountaineers was by a 66-57 margin. It’s a long-running joke around here, but making shots will be key. Jabari Bird was dialed in against Cal Poly and will be called upon to hit some more big baskets.
2. Fight fire with fire.
This should be a defensive battle of wills, so the Bears will have to hold up their end of the bargain for a shot at victory. Without the injured Kameron Rooks, Kingsley Okoroh should have free range to deter inside shots. Although he was quiet offensively against the Mustangs, the King did come away with 11 rebounds in just 15 minutes of play. Better yet, four of those boards came on the offensive end.
3. Encourage the post game.
Virginia may well be the deeper team, but they don’t have anyone as dynamic as Ivan Rabb. Some opponents have been successful denying him the ball, but the Bears have to force the issue in this game. Rabb was a very effective 7-10 on field goals last game and added 4-6 from the stripe.
4. Get the bench involved.
The Cavaliers have success partly because they trust 10 players to get the job done, keeping their starters fresh. Cal reserves like Roger Moute a Bidias, Cole Welle, and Stephen Domingo may not get a ton of playing time, but their contributions or lack thereof could end up deciding this one. Grant Mullins also came off the bench versus Cal Poly but played 29 minutes and dished out five assists.
5. Moore, Moore, Moore.
Freshman guard Charlie Moore won’t get 38 points every night, but opponents become frustrated when he’s on his game. Remember the half-court shot in the UC Davis game? His range is for real, but Moore will need to score in a variety of ways and involve his teammates to find consistent success facing Virginia’s schemes.
If you want a reason Cal can pull off an upset, start with the fact that no regular Virginia player averages double figure points. The closest is Perrantes, who gets the most court time on the team: 28 minutes per game in Bennett’s deep rotation.
According to Ken Pomeroy, Virginia’s elite defense makes the Cavaliers a 68% favorite to win. Polls be damned, kenpom.com also considers Virginia the #3 team in the nation. However, the matchup is expected to be the third most exciting of the night out of more than 50. The first 6,000 fans in attendance are getting free shirts as part of a “white out” promotion, but they shouldn’t lack for entertainment either.
After their trip to the Bay Area, Virginia has to visit #10 Louisville before hosting #23 Florida State, so this is a big game for them as well. We all know the home streak isn’t bulletproof considering that Cal needed overtime twice this season. Regardless, the Bears will do everything possible to take advantage of playing in their own backyard.
Meaningless prediction: Cal 62, Virginia 60
How to follow: ESPN2 on TV, watchespn.com online, KGO 810 AM on radio, TuneIn on radio stream, 7 PM PT on Wednesday, December 21