BERKELEY -- California head coach Mike Montgomery is acutely aware of the fact that just about the entire Golden Bear fan base – and, frankly, the rest of the Pac-12 basketball world – looks at this week's two-game homestand in Berkeley and sees a single game: Saturday's 7:30 p.m. tilt with No. 1 Arizona.
"You're all just killing yourselves because that's all you want to talk about," Montgomery said near the end of his weekly press conference. "They're really good, but they'd better not sleep on Stanford."
That was about the extent of the discussion of the first-place team in the conference. The rest of the afternoon was spent on the Bears' first opponent on Wednesday: Arizona State (15-5, 4-3 in Pac-12).
"They're very good," Montgomery said. "They're 4-3, so I don't know what their distribution of home-road is, and how much difference that makes, but they got off to a really good start. I haven't looked at their schedule."
The Sun Devils boast the conference's fourth-leading scorer in point guard Jahii Carson, who's averaging 18.4 points and 4.55 assists per game. In the middle for Arizona State is a contender for the title of Pac-12's best big man in Jordan Bachynski.
"I know they've got size, they've got physical guys, they've got three new players – one of those fifth-year guys that's got experience – and another JC kid (Shaquielle McKissic) that's got one year left that's three years in and then Carson who's a premier point. It's like Major League Baseball – if you take care of the middle, you're probably in pretty good shape, in terms of catcher-pitcher-center fielder. It's the same thing with a big guy, and a point guard."
Bachynski leads the conference with 4.4 blocks per game, and also averages 12.0 points per game, to go along with 9.1 rebounds – second in the conference to Richard Solomon's 10.6.
How similar are the two? Not much, Montgomery said.
"Bachynski's way, way bigger," Montgomery said of the 7-foot-2, 248-pound senior center." He's just one of those guys that, one, to his credit, has improved a great deal since he's been there at Arizona State, and they have a similarity in that they have good timing on their shot-blocking, which, Bachynski seems a little more committed to that right now than Richard. He's averaging 4.4 blocks on the year, which is pretty good, and he's longer. He's 7-2 with a pretty good frame and strength, so it'll be a challenge for Richard, certainly, both offensively and defensively."
Solomon is averaging a double-double on the season, with his 10.6 boards and 11.8 points per game. Bachynski will be his marked man on defense.
"At least part of the time," Solomon said. "More than likely, it'll be me. He's big. He leads the nation in blocking, and we know that. He's a presence. He's 7-2, a big dude, he can move pretty well, has a nice little jump hook. We're just going to have to be physical."
When confronted with 7-foot-2 Omar Oraby and 6-foot-10 Nikola Jovanovic of USC, Cal was decidedly less than physical, particularly down low.
After a slow start against the Trojans, the Bears couldn't dig themselves out of their self-dug hole, and that trend continued against UCLA on Sunday, as Cal lost its first two conference games in back-to-back contests.
"We've got to sustain our effort," said junior big man David Kravish, who averaged 8.5 points and 8 rebounds over the weekend. "Well, we have to start with an effort to sustain."
The Bears are currently eighth in the league in scoring (75.7 ppg), but over the last weekend, they scored 69 and 64 points, largely because the balanced scoring that buttressed their five-game winning streak to start conference play went by the wayside. During the five game winning streak, three players scored in double figures in at least four games, with five players averaging in double figures. Over the past two games, only two players – Justin Cobbs and Jordan Mathews -- averaged in double figures.
"It's hard when you have somebody or more than one person that people are not going to defend on the perimeter. It really clogs it up for everything," Montgomery said.
Sophomore Tyrone Wallace -- who averaged 12.0 points per game going into the brace of games – became one of those players teams could ignore, managing just seven points total, going a miserable 2-for-18 from the field.
"Trust me, nobody's more frustrated than Tyrone. He's aware. He has to get more shots at the basket. He has to get more things at the basket and not settle for the shot," Montgomery said. "He gains confidence when he gets a couple shots down. That's one of those scouting things that everybody's going to try and play him differently, maybe daring him to make a shot before they worry about him type of thing. The shot goes down, he'll gain some confidence, but we watched him yesterday in practice and the ball was rotating and the ball was going down pretty regularly. There's no question that he had a stretch where he was shooting the ball well, and the shot selection probably was a little bit different, but that might be based on what the defense is giving him and where he was able to get with the ball."
Cal's other guard – fifth-year point Cobbs -- will once again be tasked with defending an opponent's best scoring option, as he volunteered to do against Washington's C.J. Wilcox to great effect last time the Bears came back to Haas Pavilion.
"We don't have ballots, asking who gets who," Montgomery said. "Justin has done a really good job. He's accepted the challenge defensively. He's been one of our better defenders. He's a fifth-year guy. He's a veteran. He's strong and he does have good quickness, so he's capable of that. That's a natural match-up for him, regardless, in terms of his ability to guard that position."
Cobbs will have a unique challenge facing Carson, who is shooting 47.9% from the field and 78.1% from the free-throw line, with a team-high 73 attempts, which put him 11th in the league in tries from the charity stripe.
"He creates a lot of fouls by jumping into you and it's troubling, in terms of trying to figure out how these calls are going to be made -- who creates the contact, who was where," Montgomery said. "Officiating emphasis this week, there was a video and it talked about 10-1-4 about how the defender should not be penalized for being in a normal guarding position, but there is a lot of difficulty interpreting what this whole thing is supposed to be about. It's frustrating for everybody, I think. Some teams are probably doing a better job of this whole hands-back thing than others. Yeah, you've got to stay in front of him and you're going to need help and you can't overcommit to helping, and allow him to make others better players.
"You can see situations where he's driven and the kid has kind of been moving along, laterally, and all of the sudden, almost like a surprise to the defender, he just jumps in, and it's almost like you have to disappear. He's gotten some calls. Anybody who's smart would take advantage of that."
Arizona should not overlook Stanford, to be sure, but to break their two-game slide, the Bears simply cannot afford to overlook Arizona State. That much was apparent as early as Sunday night, when freshman Jabari Bird said, simply: "We won five games in a row because we were playing great team basketball ... Arizona State's a must-win."
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