On Friday, Cal faces Oregon State, a team with a lot of heart. But talent? Not so much.
The Beavers, who reached the NCAA Tournament a year ago and began the season with modest hopes for a repeat, have sunk to the bottom of the Pac-12 Standings. Crippled by injuries, they come into Haas Pavilion 1-15 in conference games, 5-24 overall and is one of the least productive offenses (63.9 points per game) in the country. Cal already owns a victory over OSU, 68-59, in Corvallis in January.
The Bears are coming off that spirit-crushing loss to the sixth-ranked Ducks, when they let a double digit lead disappear in the last four minutes and gave up the game-winner with less than a second left.
They have just 48 hours to get over that loss and prepare for a team that is less talented but probably took up little of Cal's limited preparation time this week.
"We put it behind us," said forward Jabari Bird of the Oregon loss. "You can't dwell on it. We've got another game Friday so we just have to forget this game."
While most of the Beavers defeats haven't been close, coach Wayne Tinkle's crew has never stopped trying. It paid off last Sunday against Utah, when OSU upset the Utes, 68-67, for its lone Pac-12 victory. Wednesday night the Beavers trailed Stanford by 25 points early in the second half but their effort never diminished. They never really did get "back in the game", but they had the ball and down by 11 in the closing minutes.
"We should have never been in that hole," Tinkle said, citing OSU's turnovers as the main reason. His team finished with 21 turnovers to 11 for Stanford. "But we did get some guys to respond."
OSU's main problem all year has been depth. That was going to be an issue anyway, then forward Tres Tinkle, the coaches' son who had been averaging 20.2 points through the first six games, injured his left wrist. His return has been reported as possible from almost the start of league play, but he hasn't set foot on the court yet. He is likely done for the rest of the year and certainly won't be available Friday night.
Backup center Cheikh N'Diaye has been limited to nine games with a shoulder injury. All told, the Beavers have missed a cumulative 60 games because of various ailments.
That has put the primary scoring burden on guard Stephen Thompson Jr. and forward Drew Eubanks. Thompson, who missed six games himself with a stress fracture in his foot, is averaging 18.0 points in conference play. He had a career high 31 in the upset over Utah, including the game-winner, and went for 19 against the Bears in the earlier game.
Eubanks, a 6-10, 240-pound sophomore, is a bruiser underneath. Faced with consistent double-teams, something Cal's Ivan Rabb can relate to, his scoring had dropped off recently. In six of the last seven games before Wednesday he had been under 15 points.
Much as the Bears do with Rabb, the Beavers have tried to get Eubanks and fellow post-man Gligorije Rakocevic the ball when they are on the move by using pick and roll plays with the guards. The hope is to make trapping the big men more difficult. That has not always worked.
"We're just not aggressive enough," Wayne Tinkle told the OSU media. "We're not setting great screens. We're not coming off hard. When we do, we get great looks."
Eubanks came alive against Stanford, scoring 21 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. He also got into a bit of a kerfuffle with Stanford's Reid Travis. Eubanks fouled Travis as the Stanford forward was going up for a shot, but took the worst of that collision with an elbow to the nose. He retaliated with a shove. Both men were assessed a technical. He certainly won't back down.
After a so-so first half, in which he scored just four points, was 0-for-2 on field goal tries and had four rebounds, Eubanks came alive after intermission and he finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds.
Rakocevic, a native of Montenegro, had a career high 16 points, 12 in the first half. He was 7-for-10 from the field and has 71 points in his last eight games after scoring just 51 in OSU's first 21 games.
"If we can get him to defend at the level he's playing offensively, he's going to be big time for us," Tinkle said.
Freshman JaQuori McLuaghlin (11.0 ppg) and Kendal Manuel (7.5) join Thompson in a three-guard starting back court.
A loss to the Beavers would doom any chance Cal has at the NCAA Tournament, short of winning the conference tourney. The Bears (18-9, 9-6 Pac-12) are clinging to fourth place, half a game up on USC, which must play at No. 4 Arizona Thursday night. The Bears close out the conference season with the treacherous mountain trip to Utah (17-10, 8-7) and Colorado (16-12, 6-9). Those two play one another tonight.
Thursday night the Bears will recognize seniors Bird, Sam Singer, Roger Moute a Bidias, and Stephen Domingo and graduate transfer Grant Mullins in what is their last regular season home game.
The only way they play again at Haas is if Cal fails to get an NCAA Tournament bid and hosts a game in the NIT.
The same holds true for Ivan Rabb, who is expected to declare for the NBA draft after this, his sophomore season.
"I have thought about it (this possibly being his last home game), but I haven't put too much time into it," Rabb said this week. "I still have a lot of games to play. But it's there. It's a real possibility."
- Cal leads the all-time series, 85-62, including 43-24 in Berkeley. In the last 18 home games vs. OSU Cal is 15-3 on its home court with the Oregon State wins coming in 1998, 2006 and 2009.
- Eubanks is third in the Pac-12 in blocked shots (2.3) and field goal percentage (.599), and eighth in rebounding (8.4). He has had at least one blocked shot in 17 consecutive games, second-longest streak in Oregon State history and just three games short of the school record.
- In three seasons under Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State is 32-8 when leading at halftime and 34-3 when leading with five minutes to play.
- The Beavers were 9-2 the last two seasons in games decided by five points or fewer. They are 1-5 in those games this season.
- In the win over Utah, Oregon State was +7 in turnover margin. Against Stanford it was -10. OSU's average in conference games is 3.9, worst in the Pac-12.
- Wayne Tinkle needs one victory to achieve 200 as a head coach. He was at Montana for eight years before coming to Oregon State.