Coming off its worst performance in Cuonzo Martin's three years as head coach, Cal needs a win in its last regular season game Saturday to secure fourth place and a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament.
To do that, they will have to put out a much better effort than they did in the 30-point loss to Utah on Thursday night. They will be in Boulder against a Colorado team that in its last game finally looked the part of the contender it was supposed to be.
The Buffaloes (17-13, 7-10 Pac-12) routed Stanford, 91-72, Thursday night, with a spirit of co-operation that does not bode well for the Bears. With plenty of star power, the Buffs had been unwilling to share the basketball, at least not enough to suit coach Tad Boyle. He felt that attitude was a major contributor to the disappointing record and the 0-7 start in league play.
But against Stanford the Buffs combined for 25 assists, and they were generally looking for open teammates rather than the basket. Six players scored in double figures, seven had at least one assist.
"It's amazing what can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit. It's a challenge as a college basketball coach, especially at this level, because every one of our players, especially some of these seniors, are thinking about the next level and the next chapter of their careers," Boyle said, after the Stanford game. "It's a daily challenge to keep them playing for Colorado, and not playing for that name on the back of the jersey."
Mission accomplished. "When we play together and share it offensively, and play with energy and passion defensively, this team can be as good as they want to be and beat any team in this league," Boyle said. "But we've also shown that when we don't, we're very average."
Cal (19-10, 10-7) beat the Buffaloes in Berkeley, 77-66, earlier this year, leading virtually the entire game albeit nearly blowing a 23-point lead. But Colorado that day was without two of its key players, Wesley Gordon and Xavier Johnson, both of whom Boyle had suspended for two games for the familiar vague sin, "violation of team rules." Both are back and were major contributors against Stanford. Johnson with 15 points and ten rebounds, Gordon 10 points, five assists.
Cal coach Cuonzo Martin feels that Johnson, especially, is a tough matchup for Cal's front line players Kameron Rooks and Kinglsey Okoroh. If the Bear duo can't keep up with Johnson and Gordon, Martin must sit them, weakening Cal's overall defense.
"Even though Xavier plays four for them, he shoots the three ball so that's a little bit different," Martin said. "They're (Johnson and Gordon) around the rim, so it's another big guy. I've always felt like we had the advantage when Kam and King are on the floor. But the more they're off the floor, we're not as good defensively."
Johnson, Colorado's second leading scorer at 14.4 points, had been slow to round back into form following his suspension. That made Thursday night's showing all the more rewarding for the Buffs.
Although he went 6-for-10 from the floor with 17 points in a win at Oregon State, in the other three games post-suspension prior to Thursday he was 6-for-26 and totaled just 21 points combined. Johnson also went 1-for-13 on 3-pointers in those three games.
"He's been hunting shots and he's been taking a lot of quick shots. I don't know if he's pressing or not," Boyle said prior to the Stanford game. "X is good when he lets the game come to him. But when he's hunting shots, or if he is pressing, it's not a good thing for him or for our team. That's really true for anybody. We want shots to come as a result of the offense."
Colorado's unquestioned star is senior guard Derrick White, the transfer from Colorado-Colorado Springs. He is averaging 17.0 points, good for fourth in the league. Oddly enough he was not one of the six who had double digit points Thursday, although he did hand out eight assists to set the tone for the theme that night.
He is a statistical marvel in his first year playing Division I. In addition to scoring he leads the team in assists, 4.3 per game, steals, 38 total, and blocked shots, 44.
Writer Sam Metivier of Buffs SB Nation dug out some more esoteric stats. "White leads the team in true shooting (62.5%), effective shooting (57.3%), offensive win shares (3.5) and defensive win shares (1.2)," he wrote. "Most significantly, White has posted a ridiculous 26.3 Player Efficiency Rating, which of the Pac-12, is behind only (Washington's) Markelle Fultz, (UCLA's) TJ Leaf and (Oregon's) Dillon Brooks."
"I am not sure what all of those mean, but they certainly look impressive."
Although Johnson and Gordon are back, freshman guard Bryce Peters is in Boyle's doghouse and has missed the last three games because of a suspension. Boyle said Peters, who averages 4.7 points per game would not play again, "until further notice."
This is nothing new for Peters, who began his collegiate career with a suspension, missing the first two games of the year before scoring nine points in his debut in the season's third game against Louisiana-Monroe. Boyle also benched Peters for the first half of CU's game at Portland on Dec. 3 after the freshman missed a study hall session.
The Bears have less than 40 hours to get their act together following their humiliating defeat in Salt Lake City. That loss leaves them tied with Utah for the crucial fourth seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Bears own the tiebreaker now, however, if Cal loses Saturday, Utah seizes the tie-breaker and will get the fourth spot no matter what happens in the Utes Saturday finale against Stanford.
One factor that always works against teams making the "Mountain Trip" is dealing with altitude. Familiarity with the thin air is an advantage for the home teams and requires adjustment from the visitor.
"You can definitely notice it," Cal guard Sam Singer said before the Bears left on the trip. "Both are a tough place to play, but after the first game we try to get a practice so you can get used to it. After the first game you get an idea of what it's like and how it is."
- Colorado has given up 100 points twice this season, to UCLA (104) and Oregon (101). The most the Bears have given up is the 86 to Oregon in Eugene.
- Cal leads the all-time series, 15-13.
- Colorado guard Josh Fortune is hitting 85.4 per cent from the foul line which would lead the league if he had enough attempts.
- Gordon has made his last eight field goal attempts. He was 4-for-4 against Stanford.
- Colorado has won seven of its last 10 games after beginning the Pac-12 season 0-7. Defense has been a factor, as the Buffs gave up 83.9 points per game in those first seven losses and are averaging just 72.0 points aloowed since.
- Five of those seven losses were by four points or fewer.