Cal basketball heads to Las Vegas for Thanksgiving, and will face their first real tests

Cal basketball heads to Las Vegas for its first real test of the season against San Diego State ...

After a 4-0 start in which No. 13 California has beaten its opponents by a an average of 21 points, the Bears will finally face a true test -- or, more likely, two -- in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving. On Thursday at 9 p.m., at the Orleans Arena, Cal will take on San Diego State, which returns three starters from a team that went 27-9 and reached the Round of 32 in last year's NCAA Tournament.

SDSU Preseason Prospectus

Should the Bears get past the Aztecs, they'll face either West Virginia (4-0) -- which reached the Sweet 16 -- or Richmond (3-1), which reached the quarterfinals of the NIT last season, in a Friday game on Fox Sports 1. If Cal beats San Diego State, they will play on Friday at 7 p.m. If the Bears lose, they play on Friday at 5 p.m., against the loser of the Richmond-West Virginia game.

"I think our guys are excited to play in Vegas," says head coach Cuonzo Martin. "We have a good team. I know that. But, you still have to win games, measure yourself against equal talent, and then see what happens ... It's exciting for our fans."

After going 3-of-23 from three-point range and 19-of-31 at the free throw line against zoning East Carolina on Nov. 20, the Bears hit 5-of-16 from beyond the arc and 22-of-31 (including 22 of their final 28) at the free throw line against Sam Houston State in an 89-63 win on Monday.

"Just do what we're capable of doing. It's a long season," Martin said. "You have two very talented young freshmen that are still 18, 19-years old. There's a lot to be learned, but they're talented players, so they'll get a different feel. They'll get a different look in Vegas, and they can only grow from that. I expect our guys to compete and play hard."

Ivan Rabb has recorded double-doubles in two of his first four games, and though he only scored eight points and pulled down five rebounds on Monday, it was probably his most effective game, as he only tallied one personal foul. Against East Carolina, he had four, and played 33 minutes. Against UC Santa Barbara, he had three, and played 18, and against Rice, he had three and played only 16.

"They'll be ready for it, but you're never ready for something you've never seen. But, physically and skill-wise, they're ready. It's part of going through it. They won't be afraid of it." -- Cuonzo Martin

"He did a lot better," Martin said. "We spent a lot of time with him after East Carolina, just his positioning on defense, getting in foul trouble. I thought he did a good job in not fouling this game. That's the biggest key for him -- positioning, being ready to play, moving his feet, high hands, not fouling."

Beyond that, Rabb is shooting 61.5% from the field, and 9-of-15 over the last two games, and he moves the ball well under the basket.

"He's a willing passer, does a good job of passing the ball, he sees you, he makes good decisions," Martin said after the game against Sam Houston State. "We felt like this would be one of those games where he'd see a double team a lot, and he did. We tried to make a conscious effort to give him the ball, to be aggressive. He's shooting almost 70 percent from the field; you've got to give him the ball, because he's a willing passer, also. If I'm playing with a guy like that, I'm trying to give him the ball every time down, because on the perimeter, you're getting wide open looks because they're doubling the post. He'll find you."

Fellow freshman Jaylen Brown has tallied double-doubles each of the last two games. After starting the season with one rebound against Rice, and seven against UC Santa Barbara, he had 10 and then 11 against the Pirates and Sam Houston State, respectively. "Playing hard, that's the biggest key with him, his energy level, playing a lot harder," Martin said. "That's the biggest key: Going as hard as he can go, every time, every possession, battling. He's rebounding the basketball. When he rebounds the ball, the way he rebounds it, especially off the defensive glass, we're that much tougher going into transition, when he rebounds the basketball. Now, he can bring the ball up the floor."

Getting rebounds and getting out in transition helped Jordan Mathews hit two straight three-pointers to get the Bears out of a 7-0 hole on Monday, and it will be that much more important against the Aztecs on Thursday.

"His first two shots were transition in the corner, wide open shots, and that's a sign of really running the basketball, getting it off the glass," Martin said. "He made his shots. He knows when it's open, he has to shoot it. That's his job."

Rebounding will be tougher against San Diego State, which return second-team All-Mountain West senior forward Winston Shepard and Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Skylar Spencer. Shepard is averaging a career-best 6.5 rebounds per game, while Spencer is averaging 5.0 boards and 0.8 blocks, after averaging 5.1 and 2.5 last season. The Aztecs have beaten common opponent East Carolina (79-54), but have lost to Utah (81-76) and Little Rock, 49-43, in a stunner, breaking San Diego State's 27-game streak of beating unranked non-conference teams at home.

"I watched them against Illinois State. I've seen them for years," Martin says. "They're physical, athletic, long, defend. They're always one of the better defensive teams, at least in the last six or seven years, one of the better defensive teams in the country. They play hard. They make you score baskets. They don't give a lot of baskets away. You have to execute your offense. You have to score baskets. That's the sign of an elite defensive team."

As for his own stoppers, ball screen defense has been a bit shaky, in Martin's view. "I think the toughest thing is always the ball screen defense, and you can see that at the highest level -- that's probably the toughest thing to defend," Martin said. "You can run a ball screen nine different ways, possibly, and how you defend it, being in position to defend it, you have a five man that can shoot the ball, the game before this one you saw Ivan helping off, where he tried to switch, and now he's on the smaller guy who can make plays. I think the ball screen defense is probably the toughtest thing to do in the game today. We constantly work on it."

Watching San Diego State for years, Martin wants to have that kind of elite defensive team -- a team that, last year, held opposing teams that reached the NCAA Tournament to a 40.5 shooting percentage from the field, and held nationally-ranked opponents to a 41.5% mark. Last season, the Aztecs were 11-8 on the road or at neutral sites, out-rebounding opponents 655-584 away from Viejas Arena.

"When you're talking about 'elite,' that's years, over time," Martin said. "That doesn't happen overnight. Those guys work towards it. You've got one of the best guys in the NBA to play for those guys -- Kawhi Leonard -- so that just didn't happen yesterday. That's a system in place, and guys understand. Every time there's a new recruit, a guy who's a freshman on campus, 'This is what we do here at San Diego State.' That's been passed down over time. That's a way of life in that program." Top Stories