Cuonzo Martin and the Bears head into Charlottesville for a clash with deliberately-paced Cavaliers

Cal squares off with No. 5 Virginia on Tuesday, facing a pack-line defense and a surprisingly prolific offense in Charlottesville.

Game at a Glance

Where: John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, Va.
Tues., Dec. 22, 6 p.m. PT
KGO 810 AM (Todd McKim - Play by Play, former Cal assistant Jay John - Analyst)

The Breakdown

BERKELEY -- California will go from the outhouse to the penthouse in just a few days time, so to speak, when the Golden Bears square off against No. 5 Virginia on Tuesday. After having just polished off its biggest win of the season -- a 33-point margin -- against Coppin State on Saturday, the Cavaliers present quite a different test, one that Cal began studying for during the second half against the Eagles

Virginia (10-1) is usually a defensive powerhouse, and while the pack-line defense is going to be effective, no matter the personnel, what's surprised this year has been the effectiveness of the Cavaliers' offense.

Virginia is No. 1 in the nation Ken Pommeroy's offensive efficiency ratings (119.4 points per 100 possessions), while last year, the Cavaliers were 24th, and before that, 21st in 2014 89th in 2013 and 147th in 2012, making the NCAA Tournament in 2012, 2014 and 2015, and winning the ACC in 2014.

"Tony Bennett, he watched his dad at Washington State and at Wisconsin, they have a system and they stick with their system," says Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. "I'm not sure what he calls the offense, but his dad called it Blocker-Mover, where you have both bigs working on each side, setting screens, down screens, back screens, and they do a great job working the offense, making it a possession game. They also will run in transition when they have an opportunity to score the ball. They really try to work the shot clock. Defensively, they're sound. They know what they do defensively. You just have to make plays and beat them, but they're consistent with their big guys. They hedge ball screens, they help them recover." Naturally, the Cavaliers are No. 14 in defensive efficiency (92.5 points allowed per 100 possessions), all while grinding other teams to a halt, ranking as the fourth-slowest team in terms of offensive tempo (63.5 possessions per 40 minutes; 348th in the nation). In fact, Martin said, that slow tempo on offense is part of the reason why they're such a good defensive team, holding opponents to 58.9 points per game (7th in the nation). 

"The way they defend, it's not just their defense; it's their offense. They'll take 19 seconds -- in most cases -- off the clock, unless they have a lay-up, so you're playing on both ends of the floor," Martin says. "It's not a case of, you come down, defend for five seconds, get a rebound and go back and play. You're playing at that level on both ends of the floor, so it's one of those games that's mentally taxing on you, because they're a good team."

That said, it's the Bears -- and not the Cavs -- that are among the top field goal percentage defenses in the nation, as Cal ranks 22nd in the country  in that category (37.7%, but with a big help from Coppin State, which shot 24.2% on Saturday, from Seattle, which shot 23-of-66, from Rice, which went 22-for-60, and from UC Santa Barbara, which went 24-for-60).

"You can't beat elite teams if you don't defend at a high level," says Martin. "That's still a level we need to get to, but we're making progress towards it, and we get another great test on Tuesday."

The Cavaliers start two sophomores, a junior and two seniors, and while they're not as veteran as they have been in years past, they are experts at running their particular brand of defense.

"This won't be about talent," Martin says. "It'll be about execution: Understanding who you are and doing what you do best."

Virginia doesn't play a zone, but they do play a pack-line defense, which is going to cause problems for the Bears down low. While freshman Ivan Rabb was able to get 13 shots against Saint Mary's, he only saw four shots against zoning Coppin State, which collapsed on him in the low post, though he did go 7-for-9 from the free-throw line.

"We've got to continue to look for him. It's not easy, because Ivan posts off the block, so when you post off the block, sometimes the post feed takes you off the block, so guys collapse on you, so there's not as many deep posts," says Martin. "Most of the time you get a deep post, you go up. But, the way he posts, he likes to post off the block, so you have to deal with the guy who's man threw it in the post, because he's probably arm's length, or a step in, and then they come to double you, and then you're off the block. That's not as easy. The thing that we continue to work with him on is getting deep post touches, to make the quick move. Of course, you want to see him get more touches, but I think there's more to it than just throwing the ball inside. It's a combination of trying to post deep here, and then also posting off. If you can walk him down one-on-one, great, if not, you have to find an open man, because you're doubled."

What's the best way to attack the pack line? Simply put: Hit perimeter shots. That's easier said than done. Though Virginia is 124th in the nation in three-point field goal defense (32.3%), only 39 teams ahead of them have faced fewer three-point shots. They don't let teams get comfortable from beyond the arc, so they don't face many shots. "You make shots -- you have to be able to make shots from the perimeter against those guys, with that defense -- you make shots from the perimeter, it's a different ballgame," says Martin. "I haven't really seen them go outside of what they normally do. They're good at what they do, really great at what they do."

Junior wing Jabari Bird finished with 10 points, two assists and a block on Saturday, going 1-for-4 from three . Over the past three games, Bird is 14-of-27 from the field (51.9%), and is averaging 12.7 points and 5.7 rebounds. Coming into that stretch, Bird had averaged 3.75 rebounds and 8.75 points, and shot 43.4% from the field. Though Bird was 1-for-4 from long distance on Saturday, he had gone 11-for-25 over the previous four games from beyond the arc.

After going 3-for-14 over three games from three-point land, junior Jordan Mathews has perked up, hitting five of his last 12 attempts.

"You have to be able to make shots from the perimeter," Martin says. "If you're scoring the ball in the post, you have to be ready to receive the double teams. They'll double the post, take it out of his hand. You've got to make shots and make plays."

Cal is going to have to offense from the inside out.

"They play the same way on both sides of the ball -- they like to take time off the clock, offensively, and defensively, they like to make it a possession game, where you work for shots," Martin says. "They don't give easy looks. They'll double the post. You have to have a big guy that can make decisions out of the post -- if he's not able to get low-post positioning, to make decisions out of the post and find the right guys ... Every time Jabari is open from three, it has to fly. Every time Tyrone [Wallace] and Jaylen [Brown] drive the ball, make a play."

Speaking of Brown, when he and Wallace can get out in transition, that's when this offense is at its best. It's no wonder that in three of Cal's biggest wins this season -- over Coppin State, Seattle and Sam Houston State -- the Bears scored in double digits on the fast break. Virginia, though, is not going to make that easy. "You still have to play in the half-court, and as much as we like to run in transition, when you get into Pac-12 play, nobody's going to just allow you to get easy transition baskets," says Martin. "For us, it's not a problem. You still have to score the basketball in the half-court. You have to execute with your offense, be strong with the basketball, stuff we talk about and go through all the time."

As far as the Cavaliers offense, Virginia is led by senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who's averaging 17.2 points and 3.0 assists per game, along with 4.6 rebounds. The 6-foot-5 wing is second on the team in assists, behind star junior point London Perrantes (4.1), who missed two games due to an appendectomy before going off against No. 12 Villanova on Saturday. After starting 1-for-4 from the field in the first half, with three turnovers, he scored 15 points after the break (including three three-pointers), powering a 14-0 run that would push the Cavaliers to an 86-75 win over the Wildcats.

Perrantes, though, is prone to turnovers, with over 100 during his three-year starting career. Two of his three turnovers against George Washington came in the final two minutes, and were one of the main factors in the Cavaliers' lone defeat this season.

Martin is more than familiar with one of Virginia's best accross-the-board contributors in sophomore guard Darius Thompson, who's averaging 24.3 minutes, 8.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game, while shooting 58.9% from the field, 45% from three-point range and 80% at the free-throw line.

"He was our point guard, when he was a freshman at Tennessee," says Martin. "He starts for them. They kind of start two point guards -- him and another young man -- so they have both of those guys in the backcourt. Good kid, great family. He's doing a good job for those guys, very talented basketball player. It'll be fun to see him. It'll be better if we win." Top Stories