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Cal Basketball

What to Watch: Cal vs Prairie View A&M

November 18, 2019
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Starting the season on a relatively lengthy winning streak used to be a fairly common occurrence for Cal’s men’s hoops team. In the five seasons between 2012 and 2016, the Bears started at least 4-0 four times. The one time it didn’t go at least 4-0 to start the season (2015), Cuonzo Martin still led the Bears to a 10-1 start during his first season.

Welcome back to fun (and winning) Cal basketball, friends.

After a 3-0 start, Mark Fox’s team takes the court against Prairie View A&M in the second game of the 2K Empire Classic. According to KenPom rankings, it’s also Cal’s lowest-ranked opponent so far this season. Prairie View A&M kept it close against Texas last week before falling 70-56. The Panthers also have losses against Texas State and Central Florida so far this season.

Prairie View A&M Panthers

Last season: 22-13 (17-1), KenPom: 209

2020 KenPom projection (after four games): 14-16 (12-6), No. 294

2020 Torvik projection (after four games): 13-17 (10-8), No. 311

Here are some things to watch for in tonight’s game.

1) A fast start

The Bears haven’t held a halftime lead this season despite winning all three games. Last Friday against Cal Baptist, the Bears built a double-digit lead early in the first half but squandered it before halftime. My opinion is the concern about slow starts is a bit overblown as long as Cal isn’t falling behind double-digits heading into halftime. But it’s something to at least watch. When the competition picks up in the second half of the non-conference portion of the schedule and then in Pac-12 play, Cal could get buried early if they don’t match the intensity it’s been bringing in the second half. Tonight would be a good start in building an early lead.

2) Maturity with a (potential) lead

This is college hoops and anything can happen, but this is the first game this season in which I feel confident saying Cal should win this game and it shouldn’t be close. Prairie View A&M had arguably its best hoops team in school history last season and lost in the NCAA Tournament play-in game to Farleigh Dickinson. This year’s team isn’t as good as last year. 

Cal built a big lead in the first half against Cal Baptist, but as Fox said in the post-game presser, the Bears were “immature” with the lead. It’d be really good to see the Bears start fast, build up a double-digit lead and hold it into halftime and the rest of the game. That’d be a sign of growth.

3) Do we get to see Kuany and Thorpe?!

So far this season Joel Brown and Lars Thiemann have gotten the heavy minutes of the huge freshman class. Dimitrios Klonaras has played a bit. But two of the more intriguing players of the class — DJ Thorpe and Kuany Kuany — have either played very little (Thorpe) or not at all (Kuany). It’d be really good to see those two get some extended minutes tonight. 

4) Limiting turnovers

This hasn’t been too much of an issue this year, but forcing turnovers is the one thing Prairie View A&M does statistically well. If this game is played up-tempo (Prairie View A&M averages 73.7 possessions per game this year) and the Bears are making both forced and unforced turnovers, Prairie View A&M is likely dictating the pace and flow of the game. If the game is being played slower with less sloppiness, the Bears are dictating. 

5) Does the hot shooting continue?

Cal is shooting the ball incredibly well. The Bears currently rank 7th in KenPom’s effective FG% category. Shooting can be streaky. Or the Bears could actually be an elite shooting team. There’s still not enough data and not enough data against tough competition to make this call. But it would help the “Cal is actually an elite shooting team” argument if they come out tonight and light it up again.

This is the type of game where you want to jump to an early lead, build it up, get the significantly contributing players off the court without any injuries, and play the younger guys. Do that and the team is looking good before a late-week trip to New York City for a showdown with Duke and then Texas or Georgetown.

KenPom game projection: 76-64, Cal (87% win chance)

Torvik game projection: 79-63, Cal (93% win chance)

From our September scouting report on Prairie View A&M:

Head Coach: Byron Smith

Smith, who will turn 50 later this month, has been coaching since 1998 but got his first head coaching gig three years ago. So far, it’s been a success and if he keeps up the momentum he’s built in Prairie View, Texas — about 50 miles northwest of Houston — his name could start popping up for some mid-major or lower high-major programs.

Prairie View A&M has been a pretty bad program — finishing in the top-300 of KenPom’s rankings just three times since 2002. But since taking over the program, Smith has taken the Panthers to a KenPom ranking of 313 in 2017 to 269 in 2018 to 209 last season. That’s some significant improvement.

Smith has done it by building an elite turnover-forcing defense — something he likely picked up from Rimm. Last year, the Panthers turned over other teams at a rate of 24.7%, which was the best in the nation. The year before, the rate was 22.7%, or seventh in the country. Not surprisingly, the Panthers were in the top-10 in steals forced as well as non-steal turnovers forced. The Panthers were also adept at guarding the three-point line, forcing teams into a 31.2% season average, which was 28th in the country.

However, the Panthers were particularly bad at keeping teams off the free-throw line, guarding two-point shots, blocking shots, and keeping teams off the offensive glass. This was likely less of a coaching issue and more of a lineup issue as the Panthers’ two tallest players were just 6-7. Their next tallest was just 6-5. There were high school teams with taller lineups last year.

On offense, the Panthers were good at getting to the line themselves as well as minimizing steals from other teams. Other than that, they were pretty average or below average in all offensive areas. 

Key returners:

Devonte Patterson, 6-7, SR., 13.5 pts, 5.0 rbds, 1.3 stls, 1.3 assts

Gerard Andrus, 6-5, SR., 10.0 pts, 5.7 rbds, 1.1 stls, 1.0 assts

Darius Williams, 6-0, SR., 8.6 pts, 2.2 rbds, 1.1 stls

The three seniors above are the core of last year’s major contributors that are returning. Patterson, in particular, was very successful at drawing fouls last season, drawing 6.1 per 40 minutes, which was 66th out of all college players last season. Meanwhile, Darius Williams was in the top-100 for steal-rate last season. And Andrus led the team for offensive rebounding efficiency and protecting the ball with the lowest turnover rate.

Key incoming players:

Lenell Henry, 6-8, JR., 3.5 pts, 2.8 rbds (Northern Arizona)

Caleb Coleman, 6-7, JR. (JUCO)

Jawaun Daniels, 6-7, JR. (JUCO)

All three of the Panther’s key incoming players are fairly unproven, but all three add something the Panthers desperately need heading into this season: some height. While Coleman and Daniels are coming from junior college, Henry spent one season at Northern Arizona before being dismissed from the team following an arrest on a domestic violence misdemeanor charge. 

Key losses:

Gary Blackston, 15.6 pts, 7.0 rbds, 1.9 assts, 1.7 stls

Dennis Jones, 8.5 pts, 4.5 assts, 2.0 rbds, 2.0 stls

Taishaun Johnson, 7.1 pts, 2.4 assts, 2.2 rbds

Losing Gary Blackston is a fairly sizeable hole for the Panthers. Despite being just 6-2, Blackston led the team in rebounds with seven per game. Averaging 15.6 points a game, Blackston was also the team’s leading scorer last season. The Panthers also lose its top passer in Jones, who led the team with 4.5 assists last season. Jones and Blackston also both average the most steals on last year’s team.

Torvik’s early projections give Cal a 93% chance of winning this game with a margin of 16 points and that seems about right. With Cal’s talent and coaching, this should be one of the easier wins of the season. After starting the season with four winnable games, Cal will head to New York where it will take on Duke and then Texas or Georgetown at Madison Square Garden. We’ll take a look at all three of those teams later this week.

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What to Watch: Cal vs Prairie View A&M

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