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Previewing Cal MBB vs. Cal Poly

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Can Cal tame the Mustangs?

NCAA Basketball: Legends Classic
Darius McNeill and the Bears are back in action against Big West competition.
Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

A season after posting a 9-22 record, the 3-5 Cal Poly Mustangs are again expected to finish near the bottom of the Big West Conference this year. Head coach Joe Callero’s team did grab an overtime win over Bethune-Cookman on Saturday night, but both teams in that matchup rank among the bottom 50 in Division I according to Ken Pomeroy. It also took a Mark Crowe three-pointer at the final horn to accomplish that. I have on good authority that Crowe called “bank” during this particular play.

The Mustangs’ only other win against a D1 team also took overtime back on November 24 against South Carolina Upstate. The 3-5 California Golden Bears had been struggling prior to their comeback victory versus San Diego State last Saturday, but Cal should certainly be favored in this Saturday night’s game at Haas Pavilion.

Cal Poly

Projected lineup

#3 Donovan Fields - 5’10” Sr G - 15.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 4.1 apg

Fields is the leading scorer on this roster, but he is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort of proposition. During his last four contests, Fields shot: 2-14 in Portland, 9-19 against Upstate, 1-15 at Fresno State, then 11-16 in the win over Bethune-Cookman.

#11 Marcellus Garrick - 6’4” Sr G - 10.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.3 apg

Garrick was a reasonable contributor off the bench last season, but so far he’s shooting a woeful 32.5% from the field. Garrick is good for the occasional steal, at least.

#13 Daxton Carr - 6’7” Fr F - 5.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 0.6 apg

Carr pulled down a season high 10 rebounds against Fresno State. The newcomer from Idaho is getting pretty heavy playing time at the outset of his career and has blocked a shot in three straight contests.

#5 Mark Crowe - 6’5” So F - 10.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.1 apg

Sure, Crowe was the hero in his last appearance. He’s also shooting 51.7% from the floor to go with 47.2% from distance. Crowe never showed stood out as a freshman, but why leave him open when he’s hot?

#30 Hank Hollingsworth - 6’10” Jr F - 6.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg

Hollingsworth is the ace interior defender on this team and posted a nice double-double on November 24.

Key reserves

#35 Kuba Niziol - 6’7” Sr F - 7.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.9 apg

A native of Poland, Niziol nearly had a triple-double in his first appearance of the season. Since then, he’s pulling down his share of rebounds but the overall contributions have been more modest.

#1 Job Alexander - 6’4” Jr G - 3.5 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 1.4 apg

I’m trying to think of something insightful to say about Alexander, who is filling a backup point guard role, but my head is filled with Arrested Development catchphrases.

#23 Karlis Garoza - 6’9” So F - 2.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 0.3 apg

Garoza started at center for the Under-18 Latvian National Team, but Callero has not yet tapped his full potential in San Luis Obispo.

#24 Junior Ballard - 6’3” Fr G - 3.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 0.6 apg

Ballard caught fire against Fresno State in scoring 15 points, which tops the rest of his offensive output combined. For my own edification, I had to verify that he’s not related to former NHL player Keith Ballard.

Winning strategies

1. Be mindful of tempo.

Cal averages 66.4 offensive possessions per game, which is the fewest in the Pac-12. Cal Poly’s pace is even slower with 65.4 possessions. The good news is that Bear defenders should not have to constantly chase. Nevertheless, low scoring games can be bad for a favored team with fewer opportunities for superior skill to show through. Wyking Jones’ group has done a good job limiting turnovers and making shots, but now is not the time for those trends to reverse.

2. Let it rain.

I’m not talking about California’s need for precipitation but rather the Bears’ encouraging 41.5% conversion rate from behind the arc. The Bears rank 10th nationally in three-point shooting while Cal Poly is a much less robust 261st. That should be a competitive advantage thanks to Matt Bradley, Justice Sueing, and Darius McNeill.

3. Don’t sweat the free throws.

Cal has continued the 2017-18 trend of reaching the free-throw line quite often. The big difference is that the Bears make them 74% of the time compared to 68% last season. Meanwhile, Cal Poly has done a nice job limiting opponents’ trips to the charity stripe. That could be something of a red herring because the Mustangs’ overall defense has been poor. Their rank of 285th among Division I in defensive efficiency translates into opportunities for easy field goals.

4. Lock down the perimeter.

The Mustangs score 35.7% of their points on threes. While Cal Poly’s success rate from long range is about 10% lower than that of Cal in the early going, staying close to three-point shooters like Crowe is advisable.

Meaningless prediction: California 77, Cal Poly 70

Pomeroy gives Cal an 83% chance of victory and it would be disastrous for the Bears to lose this one. With the possible exception of San Jose State, there should not be a weaker opponent the rest of the way.

This game will be televised on Pac-12 Networks on Saturday, December 15 at 7:00 PM PT. The KGO 810 AM stream is available on TuneIn radio.

Go Bears!