Cal hosts Colorado Sunday afternoon, and just a couple of weeks ago this looked like an easy assignment for the Bears.
Now, not so much.
After going an impressive 10-3 in their non-conference schedule, knocking off a couple of ranked teams in the process, the Buffaloes were absolutely awful when Pac-12 play began. They lost their first seven conference games, including one to woeful Washington State.
But just when it seemed they might lose them all, the Buffaloes turned things around. The resurgence began quietly enough Jan. 26 with a win over Oregon State, which is 0-10 and counting in conference play before Saturday., Then two nights later the Buffs pulled the biggest Pac-12 upset to date when they knocked off tenth-ranked Oregon, 74-65. The win streak hit three with the win over Stanford Thursday night, and the Buffaloes (13-10, 3-7) are feeling much better about themselves.
"Coach (Tad Boyle) has talked about how we're starting to believe in ourselves again, senior guard Derrick White, the unquestioned star of the team, told the Buff Zone. "It kind of started with the Oregon game. We have to stay confident and play each game with the game plan we go in with. If we do that I think we'll be successful more often than not.
Showing what an inexact science scouting of prep prospects can be, White was held in low regard by Division I schools when he came out of high school. Receiving no offers from major schools, White went to University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and had a brilliant three years at the D-II level. As a junior he averaged 25.8 points and 5.2 assists per game.
He finally caught the attention of some major programs, including Colorado, where he transferred and sat out last year per NCAA rules. Although ineligible to play, he was able to practice with the Buffs, and Boyle said that there were days White was the best player on the floor.
This year the 6-5 White is leading the Buffs in scoring (16.4 ppg), assists (4.3) and steals (28 total). In conference play he is scoring at an average 18.2. Against Stanford White had 19 points, hitting five of his six three-point attempts, and chipped in with eight assists, seven rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
"He's a guy who, when he's got the ball in his hands, he's going to make the right decision nine out of 10 times, Boyle told the Colorado media before the season. "But what makes Derrick White such a special player is when he doesn't have the ball in his hands. The lost art of basketball today is guys moving without the ball and playing without the ball. That's what Derrick White does at a level that's so much higher than the average player.
Colorado can crash the boards, with three of the top 20 rebounders in the conference in 6-10 Wesley Gordon, 6-6 George King and 6-7 Xavier Johnson. Cal was out-rebounded by Utah, 42-37, in the double overtime victory Thursday night and Cal coach Cuonzo Martin laid part of the blame on the Cal guards. Normally active under the glass, the Bear guards were a little too passive.
"That's the second time we've been out-rebounded all season, Martin said. "I thought we did a poor job especially in the zone. We might have given up four or five offensive rebounds in the zone. Just watching from the bench I thought our guards did a poor job of giving their bodies up and blocking guys out.
Martin has said he prefers to play man-to-man as opposed to zone, but went to the latter style to protect players in foul trouble. The Bears best be careful using the zone Sunday, as the Buffs might have found a new way to break it - in reserve guard Bryce Peters, who was three-for-four behind the arc against Stanford. Peters came into the game 8-for-27 or 29.6 per cent on his treys.
A highly touted freshman recruit, Peters was suspended for the first two games of the season because of an undisclosed violation of team rules. However he has been in 20 of the 21 games since then, and if Thursday is any indication is finding his range.
Colorado has had trouble taking care of the ball, turning over 304 times (13.8 per game) one of the worst numbers in the Pac-12. They recorded 23 turnovers at Stanford, normally a figure that leads to defeat. The fact they were 26-for-49 (53.1 per cent) from the field and out-rebounded the Cardinal 34-27 compensated.
"We were efficient offensively, and that was a big part of it, Boyle said. "We could have put this thing away if we took care of the ball. We played a good game, but we turned the ball over 23 times on the road. It's hard to put anybody away when you do that. But our offense is coming along. We hit some timely threes and our offense was pretty efficient.
The victory broke Colorado's ten game losing streak in conference road games, dating back to last year. Overall the Buffs are 3-6 on the road this season.
- Cal leads the overall series, 14-12. In the team's last meeting, the Buffs won 70-62 in Boulder.
- Colorado has never finished higher than fifth in the league in Boyle's previous six years in Boulder.
- Colorado has two overtime losses this season, to Washington and Washington State in January in consecutive games.
- In his seven seasons as a head coach, Cuonzo Martin's teams are 35-12 in February.
- Ivan Rabb is averaging 14 rebounds per game in his six Pac-12 home games.
- Prior to the Cal-Colorado men's tip off at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, the Cal women take on USC at 10:30 a.m. The Cal women upset No. 13 UCLA, 80-77, Friday night for only their fourth conference win.