Cal is in Pullman Thursday night to take on Washington State; the Cougars are in a bit of a funk.
Picked to finish 11th in the conference, they are 9-10 (3-4 Pac-12) and have lost three straight, the most recent a 32-point blowout in Colorado. But the Cougars were on a similar downer when they came into Haas earlier this month (it seems longer ago than that) and they surprised the Bears, 69-66.
That started the downward spiral that Cal has yet to pull out of, and also began a little roll for WSU. The Cougs won their next two and were briefly the surprise team of the league. The three consecutive defeats have brought coach Ernie Kent's team back to reality.
In his press conference this week, Kent was asked if his team needed “a confidence boost.”
“I don't think it's needing a confidence boost. If anything, with this team, I think I've got to be careful not to overwork them and make sure they can get re-energized and go back to work again,” Kent said.
“The game like the Colorado game, I won't really even show them the tape of that game until we go back at them (Colorado) again and more or less just focus on what needs to be done this week to get them ready to play Cal and Stanford.”
Kent's main focus will be on rebounding. Despite the efforts of sophomore forward Josh Hawkinson, who leads the league in rebounding (10.7 per game) the Cougars are last in team rebounding margin (-1.3). Some Cougar followers put much of the blame on 7-foot center Jordan Railey, who is averaging just 3.0 rebounds per game. Kent said that Railey is at least partially a victim of WSU's defensive scheme.
“What we've done with Josh, if you notice who he's been matched up with, that guy is always the guy that sits in that low block. Because he's such a good rebounder defensively we put him on the team's best low post guy. Even in Jordan's case he plays away from the basket a little bit more because he always takes that four man who maybe is not around the bucket as much.
“Therefore Josh's numbers are going to be inflated because he seeks the ball so well and we keep him close to the basket because he is such a great rebounder.
“He definitely needs some help from our guards, not just from Railey. We look at a guy like Que Johnson and how big he is (6-5) and how athletic he is, he should average more rebounds. We've talked to DaVonte, (Lacy) he should average more rebounds. (Reserve forward) Brett Boese should get more rebounds. But Josh does a good job of patrolling the boards and he gives you kind of a false sense thinking he's going to get every one, and guys want to leak out. That's a discipline thing to know your job, do your job on a possession-by-possession basis and they could do a better job helping him out.”
Perhaps because of their rebounding problems, WSU gives up a lot of points. The Cougars are giving up 75.5 per game, worst figure in the league. That figure is distorted slightly by the loss to Colorado in which the Buffaloes shot 54.8 per cent from the floor, including an even 50 per cent from three-point range.
“Looking at tape I thought we played actually pretty well the first half, a lot better than I thought (at the time) we were playing. They played super in the game,” Kent said. “They shot the ball well, they had great rhythm and great confidence in the game so you have to give them some credit.”
Cal forward Jordan Mathews scored 24 against WSU in the first game, after having lit up Washington for 31 the game before. Kent said the Cougars will be concentrating on the Cal sophomore.
“When we played them there it (the WSU defense) wasn't bad and he still had a big game,” Kent said. “So he is a very difficult player to shut down because he can get rolling on you and he shoots the ball so well and he shoots so deep.
“The biggest thing is just making sure you stay between him and the basket, and when he catches you've got to be right there with him, because if you're a split second late he lets it go and he's pretty pure with his shot.”
Lacy, the senior guard from Tacoma leads the Cougars in scoring at 16.9 points per game (fourth in the league), Hawkinson is ninth at 15.1.
“They play at a fast pace,” said Mathews. “They have two really good players in Lacy and Hawkinson. And they go to them pretty much every time down. They've got some good role players, too, but they are the focal points on the offensive end.”
Hawkinson (18 points) and Lacy (14) hurt the Bears the first time around, but so did Railey, who had a career high 17 points against the Bears.
“Hawkinson is playing well. He's a double-double guy, facing up, making jump shots. He shoots from the perimeter like a guard,” Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said this week. “He'll post up some around the rim, shooting floaters. It's rare you see a big guy, 6-10, shooting floaters. He does a good job with that.
“Railey played well against us, he's been sound. It wasn't a case of them beating us on the glass. It maybe was a surprise the way Hawkinson shoots the ball from the perimeter. I think he got comfortable in the course of the game and made shots for them.“
Martin has challenged his defenders to do a better job against the Cougars' big men. “We have to be aggressive, get him (Hawkinson) out of his comfort zone.
“Make him uncomfortable where he's catching the ball, challenge his shots, make him work. And Railey, get him off the blocks around the rim. When you have a 7-foot guy getting the ball around the rim, chances are that shot is going in.”
Hawkinson, who was on the fringes of WSU's bench last year and averaged a puny 1.2 points per game, is the favorite to win the honor as the league's Most Improved Player. Kent said it is a classic example of a player's particular skills finding the right system.
“When you look at the way we play, the two toughest positions for us to find are the point guard position and the four-man because the four-man has to be able to stretch the floor,” Kent said. “He's got to be able to shoot it, he's got to be able to rebound it, he's got to be able to put it on the floor, he's got to be able to pass it. He has to be very, very skilled and sure enough, that's what Josh Hawkinson is.
He's perfect for how we want to play. … He's long, he's smart. He understands the game and knows how to position himself. He has a great feel for where the ball's going to be and does a great job of what I call ‘playing in space,' meaning you really don't have to run a lot of stuff for him because he has such a tremendous feel for the game. He just makes plays and gets shots because of feel.”
One aspect of Hawkinson's game that has fallen off of late is his three-point shooting. In the non-conference games, Hawkinson was 7-for-16, not huge numbers for 12 games, but enough for the defense to at least think about the possibility of his casting off. But since league play began, he has missed all 12 of his three-point tries. Fatigue could be a factor in that, as Hawkinson has played 608 minutes this year after just 180 last year.
“It's hard to get him off the floor,” Kent admitted.
- Besides Hawkinson, Rainey and Lacy, the Cougars have been starting forward Ike Iroegbu and Ny Redding, the point guard.
- In a bizarre bit of schedule, Cal will have played both the Washington and Los Angeles schools twice each before it sees the Oregons, Utah and Colorado.
- Cal leads the all-time series 75-49 and swept two games last season.
- Redding is averaging 3.9 assists per game, second among Pac-12 freshmen. He is also fifth overall in free throw percentage at 83.0 (239-for-47). He became the starter five games into the season.
- Hawinson has 11 double-doubles, tops in the league.
- WSU has already won as many conference games (three) as it did last season and needs just one more win to match last year's total of ten