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Cal Men’s Basketball vs. Arizona State: Preview

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Can the Bears rebound against the Sun Devils?

Charlie Moore hopes to do damage against defensively challenged ASU
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The 9-4 California basketball team is set to host 8-6 Arizona State in the second conference game for both teams. On Friday, Cal got off to a fast start against #18 Arizona before falling 67-62. ASU has a bit of momentum after winning a shootout at Stanford 98-93 that same night.

Just three Arizona State players are Arizona natives, and Kodi Justice is the only one making substantial contributions. The team record is fairly unimpressive, but the Sun Devils have faced Top 25 teams Kentucky, Creighton, and Purdue in non-conference play. The more potentially damaging losses came against Northern Iowa and New Mexico State. ASU also fell to Davidson 68-60, although that group could make the NCAA Tournament this campaign. ASU did defeat San Diego State 74-63, a squad that triumphed over Cal during their matchup in Sacramento.

The Sun Devils rank 66th nationwide in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and have four players who average 13 or more points. It’s no secret that their shortcomings are mostly on the other end: they are 186th in the corresponding defensive category. It’s not a deep bench at all, especially when you compare with a recent opponent like Virginia. Indeed, the ASU starters get the vast majority of playing time under coach Bobby Hurley. Guard Sam Cunliffe’s pending transfer has thinned Hurley’s rotation even further. Prior to the season, two freshmen were also lost for the year. Vitaliy Shibel suffered a major injury and Romello White was deemed ineligible on academic grounds.

Arizona State

Projected lineup

G Torian Graham - 6’5” Sr. - He came into the Bay Area on a roll after torching Creighton for 24 points and going 6-12 behind the arc against Central Arkansas en route to scoring another 26. He upped the ante with a career-high 30 against the Cardinal.

G Tra Holder - 6’1” Jr. - Defending him might well be the key to victory. The Boilermakers held him to two points and won in a blowout. Even NMSU got him to shoot an abysmal 2-13 from the field. He appears to be back on the upswing, though. Holder’s quickness is an asset, and he’ll throw in the occasional behind-the-back pass.

G Shannon Evans II - 6’1” Jr. - Streaky perimeter shooter has done a good job overall, shooting 40% from long range while leading the team in assists and steals.

G Kodi Justice - 6’5” Jr. - The least dangerous starter from a scoring standpoint, but he is a reasonable facilitator and solid defender. Coming off a nice performance at Maples Pavilion.

F Obinna Oleka - 6’8” Sr. - Averaging nearly 11 rebounds to go with his 13 points, but not a major shot blocker. In fact, he’s more likely to take the ball away.

Key reserves

F Jethro Tshisumpa - 6’10” Fr. - Hailing from the Congo, Tshisumpa managed five swats against SDSU and should get a crack at guarding Ivan Rabb.

F Ramon Vila - 6’8” Fr. - The Barcelona native knows how to hit the glass, and I’m not talking about home improvement.

F Andre Adams - 6’9” So. - He wouldn’t even get a mention in most team profiles thanks to his benchwarmer status. However, he did put forth a good showing in the New Mexico State game.

Winning strategies

1. Shoot from the perimeter.

ASU got off to an early 9-0 lead against Creighton. However, the Bluejays got back into the game and eventually won because they made 14 of 25 three-pointers, good for 56%. That’s better than the 53% they shot on field goals overall. Cal may not have the same personnel, but Cuonzo Martin should encourage Charlie Moore and Grant Mullins to fire away despite Moore’s 3-12 from the field in his last appearance. Moore and Mullins are around 40% for the season behind the arc, not to mention Jabari Bird who added 16 points on Friday. Arizona State allows opponents to connect on nearly 36% of threes which is #219 in Division I.

2. Prevent second chances.

The Sun Devils are a good offensive team, and Oleka is an excellent offensive rebounder (3.5 per game). The Bears can’t afford to give ASU put-backs. Kingsley Okoroh (6.8 rpg) and Rabb (9.2 rpg) will have to fight for the ball on their misses. It wouldn’t hurt to get Oleka in foul trouble, perhaps with a steady diet of Rabb on the attack after he scored 16 versus the Wildcats.

3. Don’t beat yourself.

One takeaway from the Virginia game is that the Cavaliers average the second fewest turnovers committed in the land. It behooves Cal to keep ball protection in mind. ASU isn’t on UVA’s level, but they do rank among the top 50 teams in turnover ratio. If the Bears play their usual defense and don’t give possessions away, they should be in good shape.

4. Avoid a track meet.

It’s unsurprising that Hurley was an advocate of reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to the current 30 second time limit. Arizona State averages 73.5 possessions per contest, which isn’t right at the top but does rank 47th in the country. Cal runs a more glacial 68.7 possessions in an average game. It benefits the Bears to work the clock on offense, but that’s part of their usual strategy. Cal must also contest quick shot attempts with authority and make the Sun Devils think twice about emulating Mike D’Antoni’s former Suns teams.

5. Protect home court.

Conference victories will come at a premium in the Pac-12, so it’s imperative that the Bears win games at Haas particularly against beatable opponents. ASU has enough talent not to be taken lightly, but the Bears should approach the game with confidence. Ken Pomeroy (kenpom.com) gives the Bears an 80% chance of getting back in the win column.

Meaningless Prediction: Cal 70, ASU 66

How to follow: Pac-12 Networks on TV, KGO 810 AM on radio, TuneIn.com on radio stream, 7 PM PT on Sunday, Jan 1

Go Bears!