Utah's basketball team is 15-6 overall, 6-3 in Pac-12 play, with the three conference losses being to Arizona, UCLA and Oregon. Cal is 15-6 overall, 6-3 in Pac-12 play, with the three conference losses to Arizona, UCLA and Oregon. Utah is tops in the conference in average rebounding margin at plus 8.1.
Cal is second in the conference in average rebounding margin at plus 7.9. In conference play, Utah is fourth in scoring defense (69.4 points per game).
In conference play, Cal is third in scoring defense (66.4). Utah's leading player is its power forward, one of the best in the conference. Cal's leading player is its power forward, one of the best in the conference. The list continues, but you get the idea. Thursday night's game between the Utes and Bears matches a couple of teams that are a lot alike and have a lot at stake. The winner would greatly improve its chances of an NCAA Tournament invitation. The loser would suddenly become a bubble team.
Utah took two out of three games from the Bears last year. The two split their conference contests and Utah won in overtime at the conference tournament. Much as the Bears are different this season with the departures Jaylen Brown and Tyrone Wallace, the Utes are without center Jakob Poeltl, who was the cornerstone of their offense.
"They have just a little different approach (this season)," Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said of the current Utes."Because I would say 60 per cent of what they did went through him (Poeltl), especially around the rim. When games got tight, he made plays at the basket. When he wasn't scoring the ball he just found a teammate, kind of like what Ivan does when teams are doubling him. This is their system and they do a great job doing what they do, but again a lot of things flowed through him."
Forward Kyle Kuzma has become the offensive focus in Poeltl's wake and he is to Utah what Ivan Rabb is to Cal, the physical and spiritual leader. Kuzma averages 16.9 points per game, Rabb, 16.8. Rabb leads the league in rebounding, 12.4 per game, Kuzma is third, 9.9.
But as much as we want to make of the similarities of their roles and their stats, the two performers are not identical.
"I think they are both skilled players," Martin said."Ivan might have a couple of inches (of height) on him. Kuzma is probably more perimeter oriented than Ivan. Ivan's more around the rim. … Kuzma goes off the bounce more than Ivan, off the dribble. Ivan is more interior as far as post moves, back to the basket. Kuzma will post up, but it's more slashing to the rim, They both do a great job attacking the glass, two of the better rebounders in the league."
Kuzma gets his much of his help from a couple of transfers, David Collette, a forward from Utah State and Sedrick Barefield, a guard from SMU.
"With Collette, his size, 6-10 maybe 230 pounds, scores it around the rim, He has post moves, face up moves, knows how to get your bigs off balance, get them in foul trouble," Martin said."He is mobile as a big guy, can face up doesn't shoot a lot of threes but has a good touch.
"Sedrick (Barefield) is a guy that transferred in from SMU. He is a quick guard, can play both guard positions. Fast off the trouble, had 30 plus, might have had 40 (35 actually) in a tournament they played in, scored the ball really well."
Barefield averages 10.8 points and three assists per game off the bench.
"With those two additions along with the other guys they brought in and the guys they returned, they are scoring the ball really well, getting out in transition," Martins said."They are shooting almost 54 (53.9) per cent from the field in league play, which is very impressive. So we have our work cut out for us."
Collette, who is from Murray, Utah, was recruited by then brand new Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, but chose Utah State primarily because of coach Stew Morrill. After a redshirt season and a two-year Mormon Mission, Collette had a solid freshman campaign, averaging 12.8 points per game. Then Morrill retired.
Early in his sophomore year, Collette realized he was no longer happy at Utah State so he wanted out. His exit was messy, and there was some talk that Kristkowiak had contacted Collette in violation of NCAA rules. Both parties denied it, and evidence supports them. Still it was hardly a clean break.
Ineligible for the first eight games of this season, he has scored in double figures in all 11 he has played, and is averaging 14.3 per game
Another newcomer making significant contributions is 7-0 redshirt freshman Jayce Johnson. Little-used earlier in the year, Johnson has played meaningful minutes off the bench in the last four conference games.
"I think with all their bigs, they do a great job with what's presented to them," Martin said."I think what Jayce does is a great job of playing hard. He plays, he competes, he battles. Just watching, he's one of those guys who executes a play all the way through. He chases down rebounds, he gets the ball. He puts himself in great positions. He's one of those bigs you have to put a body on every time he goes to the glass because he keeps balls in play."
Point guard Lorenzo Bonam, whose last-second layup against Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament last March forced overtime, is third in scoring behind Kuzma and Collette at 13.2 ppg.
One other thing Cal and Utah have in common is problems at the free throw line. Utah hits just 60.7 per cent (11th in the conference) and the Bears are not that much better at 64.4 (10th).
Players and coaches said that free-throw shooting is generally better in practices than in games. Krystkowiak suggested to the Salt Lake Tribune that he would get "creative" to address it more in practice.
While both teams have decent records, neither has a"signature" win. This could check that box for one of them and carry postseason ramifications. Most analysts see three Pac-12 teams as locks to receive NCAA Tournament bids – Arizona, UCLA and Oregon. A fourth bid is likely and a fifth possible.
USC, Utah, and Cal are all next in line, so this game could move the victor out of the logjam.
The all-time series is tied, 13-13. Cal has won seven of the ten games played in Berkeley.
The Utes have converted 59.0 percent of their two-point field goal attempts, which ranks fifth in the nation according to KenPom.com. Only UCLA's 59.3 percent effort is better among Pac-12 teams.
Shortly after Martin was hired at Cal three years ago, he made a late run at recruiting Barefield, then a senior in Compton, Ca."We got in too late," Martin said."He committed to SMU a couple of months after we (Martin) got the job. What I saw when I watched him play in high school, his quickness, his athleticism, shiftiness with the ball, great frame."
Kuzma had his 12th double-double of the season with 18 points and 12 rebounds in the victory over Oregon State last weekend. The dozen double-doubles ties him with Arizona State's Obinna Oleka for the overall league lead. He and Rabb share the lead in conference games with six.
Utah has 15 or more assists in five of its nine Pac-12 games.
Cal's Dontae Coleman, whose playing time has been reduced recently by injury, was much improved at practice this week."He's not 100 per cent but he's a lot better," Martin said.
Thursday's game promotion is "Keep Berzerkeley Weird Night," with free "Bears Get Weird" hats to the first 2,000 students and free tater tots while supplies last. Fans who arrive in their weirdest costume will be eligible to win Beats by Dre headphones. And, No, Bill Walton is not doing the telecast.