#21 Washington (11-1) at California (10-3), 7:00pm January 2nd, Pac-12 Networks.
If there has been a characteristic "Romar Loss" over the last few years of non-conference play, it has involved letting an unheralded team hang around for most of the game before falling apart late in a hail of badly defended three-pointers from a single scrappy, undersized guard.
After remaining undefeated over the first eleven games of the season, Washington finally delivered just such a loss to Stony Brook in the final game of the non-conference slate.
It was an embarrassing loss, not because Stony Brook is a bad team (they aren't), but because the loss followed a pattern that many were finally ready to accept this team would refuse to follow. Romar's Huskies overlooked an opponent and it cost them big.
That being said, if you thought Washington embarrassed the conference, you did not see Cal lose 55-52 to the Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners on the very same night. Entering the contest, Bakersfield had a 3-10 record and an RPI of 321!
It represents the first truly inexcusable loss for a 10-3 Cal team that had previously lost 71-55 to Texas back in November (bad loss, quality opponent) and Wisconsin 68-56 in the game immediately preceding the Bakersfield loss.
The loss also provides a new sense of urgency for a team that can no longer rest on its non-conference laurels and count on an NCAA tournament berth. The Golden Bears will need to perform in the Pac-12, and that means defending home court against a Washington team that is dangerous but clearly beatable.
Likely Starting Five: G Tyrone Wallace (Jr., 6-5, 205), G Jordan Mathews (So., 6-3, 205), G Sam Singer (So., 6-4, 205), F Christian Behrens (Jr., 6-8, 226), F David Kravish (Sr., 6-10, 240)
Wallace is the real key here. The junior is incredibly long for the point guard position, negating NWG's usual size advantage.
He leads the team with 19.2ppg on 49.7% shooting from the field and 44% from three-point range. He leads the team in assists at 4.1 per game (to 2.9 turnovers). He leads the team in rebounding (!!!) at 8.8 per contest. Of course, he also plays a team-high 34.5 minutes per game. Wallace is simply too valuable to sit.
Mathews has served as a solid second scoring option. He averages 12.8ppg on 41% shooting (38% from deep), 3.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists. Singer is starting in place of the injured Jabari Bird, and aside from a 15-point outburst against Eastern Washington, he has mostly been a non-factor.
In the front court, Behrens has chipped in a quiet 7.5ppg and 4.7rpg in only 23 minutes. Kravish, contributing for the fourth straight year, averages 10 points and 6 rebounds a night. He is a skilled shot blocker (1.7bpg) and shows an increased willingness to pop out for the occasional jumper.
F Dwight Tarwater (Sr., 6-6, 230) and G Brandon Chauca (Fr., 5-9, 160) are the first to rotate in off the bench.
Both of these teams have generally played well this season, and both teams have most recently looked terrible. That makes predictions difficult, especially when you consider that Washington has played a single road game all year. Against Seattle U at Key Arena.
I could try to argue that Washington will be focused and hungry to prove that the loss was a fluke while Cal will be rattled and divided after falling to Cal State Bakersfield. I could also say playing its first true road contest so close on the heels of the Stony Brook dud will prove too much to overcome for Washington while the Golden Bears will rally on their home court. Maybe both teams will just play like garbage.
This game is a pick-em of cliche story lines and musings over theoreticals like momentum.
In reality, I think it will come down to Washington's defense. After playing at a near-elite level defensively for the first eleven games, the Huskies allowed an unremarkable Stony Brook offense blatantly open looks in the final minutes.
The Huskies have held teams like San Diego State and Oklahoma to below 40% shooting from the field. The offense has been consistently inconsistent, and production has come and gone. The wins kept on rolling in because no one could score on Romar's defense, especially not from three-point range and especially not in the final minutes. Then suddenly Stony Brook could.
If Washington has still not woken up and refocused mentally in time for this trip down to Berkeley, Cal is certainly capable of doing what Stony Brook did given the same opportunities. Especially in the comfort of Haas Pavilion.
If Coach Romar's squad is ready to play the same defense that has held opponents to an average 34% from the field, the Golden Bears should continue the flailing we've seen in their past two losses.
I'll go with the latter scenario, but I'm mighty hesitant until this team proves it with a win.
Washington 69, Cal 62