“That we just need to come together,” Jordan says. “He was part of a losing streak when he was at Nebraska, too, and theirs was pretty big, so he just said, ‘You’ve got to stick together,’ because right now, we’re playing with a weight on our back, and once we get rolling, everything will fall into place. He says it’s like we’re playing with a big weight on our back.”
Asked if he feels that weight, Mathews said, simply, “No.”
Nothing has fallen into place for the Bears since they lost to Washington State on Jan. 4. At 8 p.m., in Pullman, Wash., the Bears will face off once again with the Cougars, who, at 9-10 overall and 3-4 in league play, are looking down at Cal in the standings.
Cal (11-9, 1-6 in Pac-12), however, has shot less than 40% in five of its last six halves, and has been outscored 252-192 in the last six second halves of games. That’s an average deficit of 10 points per second half. The last second half in which the Bears outscored an opponent was, ironically, in the 69-66 loss last time out against Washington State, when they outscored the Cougars 46-45. Cal hasn’t scored that many points in a half, since.
“I think our personnel is better than what we’ve shown, so we’ve got to be consistent with it,” says head coach Cuonzo Martin. “Like I’ve said before, I don’t know if we necessarily have enough right now. But, you’ve got enough to be where you need to be. Now, you’ve got to play sound, have minimal mistakes. You can’t have mental breakdowns where, all of the sudden, you come out of the half and you were down six or seven, and now it’s 10 or 12 that quick. You’ve got to be sound, you’ve got to be aggressive.”
In the teams’ last meeting, Mathews scored 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting and 4-of-8 from three-point range, but he was one of just two Bears in double figures that night, while Washington State was armed with four players in double figures, headed by 6-foot-10 Josh Hawkinson, seven-foot center Jordan Railey and senior guard DaVonte Lacy. Lacy tallied 39 points against the Bears in a late-season match-up last year, and in the first meeting this season, he scored 14 points, going 4-of-9 from the field.
“It was kind of a weird game,” says Dwight Tarwater. “We didn’t have the fight we did against Washington. I remember that they had two guys they kept going back to – Lacy and Hawkinson – and we’re going to do everything that we can to keep those guys in check.”
The level of intensity, Tarwater said, changed, from two nights before, when the Bears beat then-No. 21 Washington in the conference opener.
“I think most of it was on us. I think we look back on it, you see two pretty different teams,” Tarwater says. “When it’s coming to us, we came out with a lot of toughness against Washington and we came out flat against Washington State. I think some of it has to do with them, but I think most of it’s on us.”
Hawkinson – who’s averaging 15.7 points in three games against Cal in his career – went 6-for-10 from the field and 6-for-6 from the free-throw line, hauling in a game-high 13 rebounds and scoring 18 points last time out.
“He’s a double-double guy who’s doing a great job facing up and making jump shots,” says Martin. “He shoots on the perimeter like a guard. He’ll post up some around the rim, shooting floaters. Rarely do you see a 6-foot-10 guy shooting floaters, but he does a good job with that.”
Railey went 7-for-14 from the floor, grabbing four rebounds and scoring a season-high 17 points, adding two blocks and a steal against Cal last time out. The redshirt senior transfer from Iowa State is shooting 47.2% from the field this year, and averaging just 5.4 points per game, but, Martin says, he’s still someone for the Bears to keep an eye on.
“Railey played well against us. He’s still been sound,” Martin says. “I think Railey, you need to get him out of that comfort zone. He got comfortable through the course of the game, and he made plays and he finished strong for them.
“I think, in Hawkinson’s case, [we have to be] challenging his shots, making him work, and Railey, getting him off the blocks where he’s getting it so deep. Any time you have a seven-foot guy, one-dribble, around the rim, the chances are very good of that shot going in.”
The front-line size of the Cougars is not a good match-up for Cal, particularly with the inconsistency of senior big man David Kravish, who’s shooting 53.3% over the past three games, but, before that, had shot 10-for-34 (29.4%) over the previous three games, starting with a 2-for-9 night against the Cougars in Berkeley.
“Offensively, we have to take care of the basketball,” says Martin, who’s team has now turned the ball over 63 times over the last four games, compared to 39 assists. “[We have to] move the ball, better spacing. I thought last game had a little more production in the post with David. Even though he caught the ball at the block some, faced up, made shots, you’ve got to be able to go inside-out, move the ball. You’ve got to find ways to get transition baskets, as well.”
Another factor: Jabari Bird. Bird was still out due to a stress fracture in his foot when Cal faced the Cougars earlier this month. Before going out, Bird was shooting 49.1% from the field and averaging 11.7 points per game. Since he’s returned, he’s shooting 20% (4-for-20) from the field and averaging 3.25 points per game over his last four contests. Last season, Bird struggled coming back from an ankle injury. In his first 10 games back, Bird averaged 3.1 points per game, and shot 15-for-47 (31.9%).
“I think, for him, it’s really just moving, sprinting, working hard in practice,” Martin says. “I thought he had – really, I called him [Tuesday] night, and told him – two of his better practices in a while, just really sprinting, running the floor, being one of the first two or three guys to finish sprints. I think that’s the biggest key with him, getting out of that comfort zone and working as hard as he can work.”
If perimeter shooters like Bird and Tarwater -- who spent 17 minutes on the floor against Arizona without taking a single shot – are going to be tentative, or in any way loathe to shoot, Cal is going to continue to struggle to get Kravish clean looks under the basket.
“It was due to a couple things. I wasn’t really ready to shoot, which is on me,” says Tarwater. “David hit me one time with a wide-open shot in the corner, and I just didn’t have my feet set, wasn’t ready to shoot the ball. The other thing was their hard hedges, I didn’t get away from the screen after setting it, enough, to where my guards could hit me. It was on me, just getting open, getting my feet set, getting ready to shoot. I don’t think it was an issue of me being nervous or scared, because that’s not really who I am, but it was just getting ready to shoot the ball.”
Bird being more aggressive and Tarwater being more willing to shoot are symptoms of the same problem – inconsistent effort. Tarwater says that the competition level in practice has waned in recent weeks, after being at a fever pitch during the nonconference season.
“We’re still competing, every day. I think that might have been something we lost, was a little competition in practice,” Tarwater says. “We were going at each other’s heads every day in non-conference play, and I guess we kind of stopped that, and we’ve picked it up. We’re still very positive and still fighting with each other.”
“I just think what happens, when you’re losing games, you start thinking, you start pressing,” Martin says. “You lose some tough games on the road, you come home, you don’t play as well. I think the key is being aggressive, relaxing, doing the things you did to get wins – sharing the basketball, having your spacing – but, again, you’ve got to get production around the rim. You’ve got to get to the free-throw line. You’ve got to be able to do it for 40 minutes. There will be ups and downs in a game, but the intensity has to be high for 40 minutes.”