Great teams don’t turn the ball over 19 times. Great teams don’t play down to competition. Great teams don’t play one great half per night. This California basketball team is not a great one. The Arizona Wildcats – who come in for a 7:30 p.m. date with the Bears on Saturday – are.
“You have to be at your best, you have to play at a high level. That’s what the best teams do,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin, who’s team was embarrassed on Thursday in a 35-point defeat at the hands of Arizona State. “It’s just us learning and going through it. You have to consistently do the things from start to finish in a game that give us the best chance to win games. It’s uncharacteristic to have 19 turnovers. You’ve got to take care of the basketball. Then, they scored 20-plus points off of turnovers. That’s hard.”
[RECRUITING: Which top name will be in the student section on Saturday?]
The Bears (11-8, 1-5 in Pac-12) is in the midst of a five-game losing streak, while the Wildcats (17-2, 5-1) went 12-0 to start the season, before dropping a 71-67 decision to UNLV on Dec. 23, and then a 58-56 contest to Oregon State on the road. Since that loss, Arizona has won three straight, besting Stanford 89-82 on Thursday.
“It’s one game. I told the guys about the story when I was a freshman, we lost to Indiana by 41 points. The hardest thing to do is to put the thing aside and keep moving forward,” Martin said of Cal’s 79-44 loss earlier this week. “As a true competitor, the fire will stick with you. I remember that game ‘til this day. You have to learn from it, even if it’s painful. You learn from it, and keep moving forward.”
The Bears have shot 40% or worse from the field in four of the past five games and they’ll be facing an Arizona team that’s 25th in the country in scoring defense and 61st in the nation in field goal percentage defense (39.5%).
Arizona is second in the league in scoring offense (75.1 ppg), while Cal is 11th, averaging 65.7 points per contest. The Wildcats are third in the league in scoring defense, holding teams to an average of 60.6 points per game, and are beating teams by an average of 15.1 points per game. Arizona is also second in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage (49.2), while Cal is seventh in field goal percentage defense (40.3).
“It’s being aggressive, setting up your cuts, setting solid screens, being strong with the basketball, getting into the lane, because if you get lay-ups, that helps your shooters,” Martin said of what the Bears have to do to compete with the Wildcats. “That’s easier said than done, but it’s really that simple. You’ve just got to be able to get it done.”
Last game, senior big man David Kravish pulled down just two rebounds, and he’s been on a slide the past five games, just as the rest of his team. In the past five games, Kravish is has tallied double-digit points just once, shooting 18-for-46 (39.1%).
Kravish and the rest of the Cal post corps were overmatched against Sun Devils junior Eric Jacobsen on Thursday, and will face a much sterner test against Arizona, with local product Brandon Ashley back from injury (his foot injury in last season’s match-up at Haas Pavilion was one of the key factors in the Bears’ dramatic win), senior forward Matt Korcheck, and a pair of 7-footers in Dusan Ristic and veteran Kaleb Tarczewski.
“You’re always going to play talented guys. I think what happens, is it’s you’re positing and your fight and your defense, battling in the post. I’ve had guys that are 6-6 that did a good job defending the post, and guys 6-11, 7-feet, didn’t matter how tall they were,” Martin said. “You just have to battle. If you want to, you could call a foul in the post every time down, because there’s always contact. It’s how you move your feet and how you use your hands, use your hips, and being quick to the ball, being proactive instead of reactive to everything that’s going on. You have to battle and continue to do what you do. You’ve got to do it at a high level, and do it without fouling.”
Freshman Stanley Johnson ranks 12th in the league in scoring (14.8 ppg), 13th in rebounding (6.8 rpg) and 15th in field goal percentage (49.2%), and over the last three games, is averaging 19.67 points and 8.0 rebounds.
“He’s not playing like a freshman,” Martin said. “You watch him as you break down film, and he’s physical, at 6-7, 245 pounds. He’s strong attacking the rim. He’s strong with the basketball, he plays hard, he competes. I would definitely say he’s not playing like a freshman.”
In contrast, Cal’s leading scorer, Tyrone Wallace, has seen the scouting report get out on him, as his tendancy to go to his right while driving has been sniffed out and shut down. Wallace has shot 8-for-37 over the past three games.
“He did a good job when he went left,” Martin said of Wallace’s 0-for-6 game on Thursday. “He went for three left-handed lay-ups. Now, he didn’t make them, but he shot them. That’s where it starts – going to the left. He’s had such comfort going to the right hand. It’s just a matter of doing it. He didn’t capitalize, but he did it, so that’s something he’s working on. Now, the next step is putting the ball in the basket and feeling confident in doing it.”
Over the last three games, Martin has made a point of saying that opponents have found ways to get Cal out of its comfort zone. Even with Jabari Bird back – the same Jabari Bird who helped the Bears to a 10-1 start – the Bears have to find a new comfort zone, or get comfortable being uncomfortable. That, Martin says, comes with time and experience.
“I just thing that’s going through it,” Martin said. “That’s the best way to get over it. You have to go through it, you have to mature, you have to grow, continue to get better, continue to get stronger, all those things. Again, you have to go through the fire in order to understand what that feels like, and you can learn from it. The biggest thing is, you have to go through it, because that’s the best way to learn.”