It’s scary to consider, but Cal’s first-round Pac-12 Tournament game may have come down to one play. Oregon State had a 3-on-1 fast break trailing 59-57 with about a minute left. The Beavers seemed to have an easy path to tying the game and making things even more uncomfortable for the favored Bears. Instead, Kendal Manuel settled for a three and missed it badly. Kingsley Okoroh grabbed the rebound, then lobbed the ball to Jabari Bird. Bird was able to streak the other way for a dunk while drawing a foul against Manuel. Bird hit the free throw, and suddenly Cal led by five. The final score from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas: Cal 67, Oregon State 62.
We’re familiar with the fact that the 20-11 Bears are more comfortable at home, but this was another illustration that no road or even neutral site game can be taken for granted. The Beavers won just one conference game this season and finish the season 5-27. Nevertheless, Oregon State got out to a 10-2 lead. It was reminiscent of Cal’s slow start against the Beavers at Haas on February 24 before the Bears eventually won 76-46.
OSU made a surprising 10-17 from three-point range (59%), but the Bears were fortunate that they only buried 14 of 24 free throws (58%). It also worked in Cal’s favor that Drew Eubanks missed much of the second half after sustaining an injury to his leg. The biggest oddity of the night may have been Gligorije Rakocevic making all three of his shots behind the arc. He came into the game 5-16 on threes but made the Bears pay for leaving him wide open. At least Stephen Thompson, Jr., who made 5-6 from deep and scored 25 points, is known as a streaky shooter.
Jabari Bird was Cal’s most dangerous weapon, setting the tone early by swishing a midrange jumper. He was 3-6 on three-pointers and 3-4 from the line for a team-high 20 points. Did I mention that his slam during the final minute was pretty important? On the other hand, Ivan Rabb had a frustrating start after hitting the team’s first bucket. He missed a layup and the follow on one particular possession. Rabb went 1-7 from the field in the first half but still managed a double-double by the end: 12 points, 13 rebounds.
The Bears got an unexpected surprise when Stephen Domingo scored 10 points on 3-6 shooting, including a huge three with 3:06 to go in the game. He was needed on a night in which Charlie Moore made only a quarter of his shot attempts and Grant Mullins fouled out with 5:53 on the clock. After the game, Domingo said that he expected a desperate Oregon State team: “Coach told us that no one is going to lay down. We played like it could be our last game, Jabari and me.” He was also candid about their play of late: “We had a pretty lackluster effort in the Rockies, but we had to regroup.” When asked about late-season fatigue? “It’s mind over matter.” How did he feel getting those shots to fall? “I have confidence every time I shoot.”
Regarding Thursday’s game against Utah (2:30 PM PT on Pac-12 Networks), Domingo believes that his team’s defensive versatility will be key. “Even Kingsley guards the 1 in practice,” he said. In other words, Cuonzo Martin has big men like Okoroh work on help defense against opposing point guards. King had another three blocks in this one to give him a season total of 67. As a comparison, David Kravish’s 73 blocks in 2013-14 are the most in a single campaign by a Cal player. Despite the Beavers’ success from the perimeter, they had trouble with the shot clock on multiple occasions and made only 40% of their overall field goals. California’s bigger issue was their own shooting, which was 39.7% overall.
When it comes to 5 seed Cal vs. 4 seed Utah, there are two very different data points. In early February, the Bears used home court advantage to edge the Utes 77-75 in an epic double overtime thriller. Unfortunately, last week’s matchup, a 74-44 loss, was Cal’s worst effort of the season. Mullins made over 40% of Cal’s field goals in that one, which goes some way to explain how the Bears shot a woeful 24% for the contest. Utah has now won three straight, but their last loss did come at the hands of the Beavers. Beating the Utes will come down to stopping their only three players to score in double figures twice against Cal: Kyle Kuzma, David Collette, and Lorenzo Bonam.
The Utes have a reasonable defense (#66 in adjusted defensive efficiency) but it’s not elite like Cal’s which is #10. Thanks to their quality big men, the Bears and Utes are both tremendous at preventing offensive rebounds by the opposition: Cal is fourth nationally and Utah places seventh.
Utah’s primary strength is scoring: they’re 38th in adjusted offensive efficiency. A main weakness is their 19.2% turnover rate, which the Utes offset with inside scoring leading to an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 56.4%. That figure puts Larry Krystkowiak’s team among the ten best in the nation. Thankfully for Cal, the Utes don’t get to the foul line especially often.
Ken Pomeroy gives the 20-10 Utes a 56% chance of winning. Honestly, that doesn’t sound too terrible after last week’s debacle and considering how Cal’s offense has struggled. Pomeroy’s projected score of 67-65 underscores that Cal may have to win another close one if they want to keep playing into Friday.