Cal's next opponent is ranked in the top 25, went undefeated in the non-conference season and its only loss is on the road at Oregon.
That statement was true earlier this week and one game later it is still true. The only difference is before last Thursday it was referring to No. 4 UCLA. Now it's No. 25 USC, which hosts the Bears at the Galen Center Sunday night.
Where UCLA's early season run was a mild surprise, USC's is downright stunning. The Trojans (15-1, 2-1 Pac-12) were pegged as a conference also-ran. Although last year they showed some improvement under coach Andy Enfield, going 21-13 and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years, key personnel losses dimmed the 2016-17 outlook.
Forward Nikola Jovanovic and guard Julian Jacobs left school early for the NBA, four other players transferred and 6-10 sophomore Bennie Boatwright went down in the fifth game with a knee injury and is still sidelined. Yet the Trojans rolled on, averaging 80 plus points a game and playing solid, opportunistic defense. They lead the conference in steals at 7.2 per game.
Boatwright's loss leaves 6-11 sophomore Chimezie Metu as the only experienced big man. "Without Bennie I have to be more of a leader and take on more of a scoring role," Metu said after the Trojans' 72-56 victory over Stanford on Thursday. "Being. out there without Bennie is different, but we have handled it well."
Metu had his fourth double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) of the season against Stanford and is averaging 12.9 and 18.2 for the year.
"Chimezie has had a tremendous season so far," Enfield said Thursday night. "He's developing into a tremendous player."
Just when Boatwright will return is uncertain. Although he has resumed shooting, he has not participated fully in practice. Enright said he expected Boatwright's absence to last "a few more weeks."
And while Metu has had to do more on the boards, guards Elijah Stewart (14.3 ppg) and Jordan McLaughlin (14.1) are making up for the scoring.
Stewart, who averaged 9.8 as a sophomore last season, has become noticeably more aggressive, according to Enfield.
"That's propelled him to another level of player," Enfield told the Los Angeles Times. "I mean, he's much better than he was as a freshman and even last year."
McLaughlin, a junior like Stewart, is the team leader on the floor. His 5.1 assists per game rank third in the conference. Stewart, who played against McLaughlin in high school, says he has seen annual improvement in his current teammate.
"Every year, he comes back and his moves get crisper, his shooting gets better, his decision-making gets better," Stewart told the USC student paper The Daily Trojan. "He always adds something extra to his game. He's just constantly evolving."
And he is also student of the game. "When he tells you something, he's right most of the time," Stewart said.
Freshman guard Jonah Mathews, brother of Jordan Mathews who spent three years at Cal before transferring to Gonzaga, had probably his best game of the season against Stanford, scoring ten points and contributing four steals.
"When I first came here I wasn't about defense, it was scoring," Mathews said. But Coach has emphasized defense. Defense is the key to playing time. Defense is a focal point. I take pride in it and it helps my offensive game."
Cal (10-5, 1-2) comes into the game having lost three of its last four, all the defeats at the hands of ranked teams. However, there were some bright spots in the UCLA game.
Kameron Rooks, who has missed ten games because of knee surgery, made his first appearance since Nov. 27. He played just one minute, but having him back on the floor was an emotional boost. And as he gets more game-ready he will give Kingsley Okoroh much needed help under the basket.
Guard Grant Mullins had his second straight strong game, scoring 19 points following the 20 he put up against Arizona State. One difference could be his reinsertion in the starting lineup. And that maneuver was the brainchild of the man whose place he took, senior Sam Singer.
Singer suggested to coach Cuonzo Martin that the Bears might be better served with Mullins starting.
"I just thought that it was important to get him going," Singer said in the press conference on Tuesday. "We're a much better team when he's aggressive and shooting the ball well. All I said (to Martin) was, 'If you think it's better for Grant to start the game and get in the flow of the game then he should start.'
"It doesn't matter to me, but Grant as a shooter he needs to start, get a few shots up and get his blood flowing. Me I think my role is a little bit different. Although I am aggressive and get shots up, I thought it was important for him to start over me."
- Cal leads the all-time series 134-132 and has won the last two meetings.
- Nine Division I schools have no more than one loss this year. UCLA and USC are two of them.
- Cal has not defeated a ranked opponent on the road since it beat No. 23 Syracuse in Madison Square Garden, 73-59 on Nov. 20, 2014.
- USC is off to its best start since it opened the 1970-71 season 16-0. That team went 24-2. That team, led by Paul Westphal, wound up No. 2 in the country.
- The Trojans are 9-0 at the Galen Center this season and have won 26 of their last 28 at home.
- USC has held 11 of its 16 opponents under 40 per cent shooting. Its season field goal percentage defense is 39.4