Former University of Washington recruiting target Jabari Bird is returning for Cal after spraining his ankle earlier in the season.
Where does Cal stand, as a whole? They have beaten teams they are supposed to beat, and they have lost to teams they are supposed to lose to. And they beat Oregon. Something, something, Oregon.
LEastCoastBears: With the injuries to freshman starting wing Jabari Bird and best perimeter defender in Ricky Kreklow, the expectation for the early part of the Pac-12 schedule has been tempered. Consequently, the perfect 3-0 record so far have been a very pleasant surprise. Injury to senior center/forward Richard Solomon has denied the Bears from possibly winning the game in Maui against the still undefeated Syracuse (even without Solomon, Bears were right there with the Orange until the last quarter of the game after the only big David Kravish got into foul trouble). The expectation before the season which has been restored by the recent good play is that Cal is talented enough to be in the hunt for the Pac-12 title (or be that second team behind Arizona). The emergence of some more useful bench players lately should only help when the two previously mentioned missing rotation players (Bird and Kreklow) get back.
Nick Kranz: The Bears are in much better shape then they were a few weeks ago, after a mildly disappointing non-conference performance. Cal probably shouldn't have lost to UCSB, but even that's a top 50 RPI road loss, so it's not a huge resume blot.
Monty's challenge this year is to integrate a few new freshmen into the rotation, and lately, to figure out how to work around a limited depth chart due to injuries. The team appears to have taken a big step forward over the last few weeks as the team learned how to play with each other, and the question is if it's a permanent step forward.
Scott Chong: The team is playing with confidence and hasn't reached its ceiling yet. It looked bad when Ricky Kreklow and Jabari Bird went down with injuries. But we've gotten great play out of our veterans (Justin Cobbs, Richard Solomon, and David Kravish) as well as surprising contributions off the bench from Jeff Powers, Christian Behrens, and Sam Singer. Our young players are still a bit inconsistent on both ends. However, it looks promising to have depth, talent, and a coaching staff that is doing a great job of development.
What has Cal's main focus been on offense this season?
LeastCoastBears: Senior point guard Justin Cobbs is the go-to player for the Bears, especially at crunch time. Cobbs do look to distribute early in the game where the Bears have more offensive options than in recent years. When he is needed, Cobbs will also play a bit of shooting guard with freshman Sam Singer running the point, to give the opponents another look. Compare to last year, the Bears have become a better (but far from great) 3-point shooting team, even with the departure of Allen Crabbe.
Nick Kranz: In terms of taking shots, Cal's offensive is impressively balanced amongst the current starting five and Jabari Bird. But to keep things simple, know that the offense really runs through senior Justin Cobbs, who is coming off of a Pac-12 player of the week performance that saw him average rougly 20 points and 10 assists/game. He's been excellent all season but particularly over the last few weeks, and most good things happen through him.
Scott Chong: We like to establish scoring in the low post with Solomon and Kravish. Our wings, Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews, are a bit streaky. We'll run off of turnovers, but otherwise are content to play half-court ball. Justin Cobbs does a great job of tempo control and deciding when to be a scorer vs. a distributor.
What has Cal's main focus on defense been this season?
LEastCoastBears: Coach Montgomery does switch between zone and man-to-man defensively depending on the matchup. Bears have had success with both this year. During the non-conference schedule, the Bears have had some defensive lapses but that has not been the case in Pac-12 play so far. The key issue for the Bears have been foul trouble as the drop off, particularly defensively between the usual rotation players and the current bench is quite drastic.
Nick Kranz: Interior defense led by Richard Solomon and David Kravish. Some Pac-12 teams might have one post player as good defensively as Solomon and Kravish, but maybe only Arizona have two as good as Cal's duo. Both are great positionally, know how to contest shots, and get their fair share of blocks. Cal's guards count on them for excellent help defense.
Scott Chong: Monty likes to play fundamental man to man defense that relies on positioning. We don't go for a lot of steals by design. One nice luxury this year is both Kravish and Solomon are strong one on one defenders who are also capable shot-blockers. You won't see a lot of double teams. Also, they're athletic enough for us to switch on screens.
4. How much has Allen Crabbe been missed? Who has been filling the void in pure number of shots taken?
LEastCoastBears: Most Cal fans weren't that worried about the departure of Allen Crabbe due to the entrance of the highly heralded freshman in Jabari Bird, who plays the same position and has the same pure shooting ability (with still developing defensive senses). Unfortunately, Bird suffered an ankle injury in the road loss to Creighton in the end of December and is not expected to be back yet this week.
Nick Kranz: It's been by committee. LCB mentions Bird, and with Bird out another freshman shooting guard, Jordan Mathews, has taken a solid percentage of shots. Richard Solomon and Tyrone Wallace are both picking up a few more shots as well.
Scott Chong: Early on, we definitely missed having someone who would stretch the defense and consistently put up points from the wing. And in some ways, we missed his defense as much or more than his offense. Lately, we've had different youngsters step up. There was a game where Jabari Bird went off and saved a victory. Jordan Mathews was one of the keys to upsetting Oregon. And Tyrone Wallace had a huge shooting game when we brought down Stanfurd.
5. Who is the most under-the-radar player to watch in this game?
LEastCoastBears: I would say forward David Kravish, who has been very solid since he joined the team few years ago but have been a bit under-the-radar. While he still appears relatively thin, he has slowly bulked up in his current 3rd year for the Bears. Kravish is on pace to be Cal's all time block leader and he has a nice short range game for a big man. With Richard Solomon dominating in the paint this year, Kravish doesn't really have to show his post moves that much this year, but I would be fairly comfortable with him in that role.
Nick Kranz: Agreed with LCB. Kravish has been super efficient in part because he picks his moments, and he has great defensive chemistry with Solomon. He's the guy that scores when you're focusing on everybody else.
Jeff Powers. He's a senior walk-on who has earned minutes by playing smart D and hitting open jumpers.
Why is Cal going to win?
LEastCoastBears: Bears have fought through injuries to start well in Pac-12 plays. You would think that the team is confident and will look to maintain the good play. UW is also one of the few team with a similarly short rotation like the Bears. If the referees are going to call the game tight, you would think that both teams would be adversely affected by this.
Nick Kranz: Honestly, I just think Cal is better. The Bears are more experienced, with four returning starters and three underclassmen. The Bears are probably a bit more talented. And I think Monty is a better coach than Romar, at least when it comes to game-planning and in-game coaching. Cal's advantages might be less overwhelming were the game in Seattle, but home court advantage is just another factor in Cal's favor. I expect the spread to be somewhere between 5-10 points.
Scott Chong: Our defense has been really tough and we don't turn the ball over very much. Without Ndiaye, we have an advantage inside and Monty is savvy enough to maximize that edge.
Why is UW going to win?
LEastCoastBears: For whatever reason, UW has had a good record against Cal in recent years, including a win last year in Berkeley when Cal ends up in the NCAA tournament while UW only had a NIT team. Besides as Cal learned last year in their road win over Arizona, when you have a key scorer like a CJ Wilcox (Allen Crabbe for the Bears last year in the Zona game) who is capable of carrying a team offensively by himself, you always have a shot.
Nick Kranz: Two factors: 1) C.J. Wilcox will probably have to go off, similar to what he did to Colorado on Sunday. I don't think UW is going to get a ton of scoring from interior players, so the burden likely falls to Wilcox. 2) Washington's defensive improvements are for real. The Huskies really struggled to stop teams from scoring early in the year, but appear to have shored things up for conference play. Is that just a small sample size (and playing Colorado when Dinwiddie went down)? Or is it a legitimate change? If so, Washington might have the defensive chops to keep the game close and steal one on the road.
Scott Chong: Because our young players are still inconsistent. If Cobbs gets into foul trouble, it could skew the whole game. We've had trouble stopping dominant scorers, and Wilcox is one of the best shooters in the conference.