Cal basketball heads into Colorado winless on the road in conference, and faces three-point machines in Wesley Gordon and George King

Wesley Gordon is the X-factor for Colorado against Cal, which heads into Boulder without a road win in conference play.

Cal (14-7, 4-4 in Pac-12) vs. Colorado (16-5, 5-3)

When: 2:00 p.m. Pacific, Sun., Jan. 31
Where: Coors Events Center, Boulder, Colo.
TV: FOX Sports 1 (Aaron Goldsmith, Sean Elliott)
Radio: KGO 810 AM - Todd McKim, Jay John
Players to Watch: Tory Miller lit up the scorecard against Stanford, playing 20 minutes, going 5-of-11 from the field, pulling down five offensive rebounds and scoring 12 points ... Cal's Jaylen Brown is fourth in the Pac-12 scoring in conference play (17.3 ppg), shooting 51.1% from the floor, up for 14.5 and 44.1 in non-conference games.

That ticking sound keeps getting louder and louder. Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin may not hear it, but every tick brings another road game, every tock brings his Bears closer to the end. And then, a loud chock, as another opponent hits the flag. Cal may have a King and a Rooks, but in this game of Pac-12 chess, the Bears are running out of moves.

“I never talk about having games you need to win,” Martin said, “because when you do the things you’re supposed to do, and you play the way you’re supposed to play, then that part takes care of itself. I’ve never been a coach to say, ‘We’ve got to win this many games, because nobody knows how many games you need to win.”

As it stands, Cal (14-7, 4-4 in Pac-12) are is-7 away from Haas Pavilion this season, 0-4 on the road in conference play, and seventh in a league in which they were picked to finish seventh, with another test coming up against Colorado (16-5, 5-3), which just downed Stanford, 91-75, using one of its most underrated pieces – three-point sniper George King. Unlike Cal’s own royal – seven-foot shot blocker Kingsley Okoroh – King, standing at 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, is a scorer. He’s fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring (14.8 ppg), and first in three-point percentage (48.5%).

King scored 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting, and was 5-of-5 from three against the Cardinal, scoring one point for every minute he was on the floor, and adding three rebounds.

The Buffaloes as a team are first in the Pac-12 in three-point shooting (40.9%), with point guard Dominique Collier ranking second in the league in shooting beyond the arc (48.4%). Cal, while leading the nation in two-point field goal defense, is 11th in the conference in three-point field goal defense (35.8).

Collier is also 14th in the Pac-12 in assists (3.3 apg) and 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.9).

There doesn’t seem to be a pawn in the bunch for Tad Boyle, who also has 6-foot-10, 245-pound senior forward Josh Scott, who came into the season eighth all-time in the Colorado record books in blocked shots, 10th in rebounding, 11th in double-doubles, 20th in scoring, and, perhaps most notably for the Bears, 10th in free throws made.

This season, the Buffaloes rank first in the Pac-12 in free throw percentage as a team, which is going to be an issue for Cal, sitting at 220th in the nation in personal fouls per game (20.1).

Three-point defense and foul shooting – two key elements of the game at which Colorado excels, and two key elements of the game in which the Bears come up short.

“I think it obviously starts with the offensive game plan, but when you have a guy like Scott on the floor, he forces you to make plays,” Martin said. “He’s not just a traditional big with his back to the basket or around the rim; he’s moving on the perimeter screen, he’s pick-and-popping, he’s driving the ball, so now you have a big driving the ball downhill, who somewhat plays your center position. And now, you have to collapse as a defense, and he’s able to find guys and make plays. It’s not easy to guard him with a seven-foot big guy, but we’ll do our best job, and really try to wreak havoc on him.”

Making it harder to defend Scott is fellow forward Wesley Gordon. One of the most versatile forward in the league, the 6-foot-9, 240-pound Gordon is 12th in the league in rebounds (6.9 rpg) and 10th in offensive rebounds (2.6 orpg), while also hitting 45.5% of his three-point attempts.

Against Stanford, Gordon played just 26 minutes, but pulled down seven rebounds, blocked two shots and dished out two assists, making a big impact on the game despite scoring only five points.

Gordon ranks third in the Pac-12 with 2.1 blocks, and Scott fourth with 2.0 per game. “I think, what he brings to the table, I would call him, in our scouting report, the X-factor,” Martin said. “He’s a guy that can do a lot of things, and in a lot of ways, as good as Scott is, he allows Scott and those guards to do what they need to do, because he keeps you honest. When the ball goes up, you’re going to have to box him out. You’re going to have to identify him with one guy, and you have to have other guys helping him out, because he keeps balls alive. He slashes, he dunks the ball, he makes plays, but he can also score and post up. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t get as many touches as Scott does, but he brings a lot to the table, because of the way he impacts the game, and what he brings to the table, as far as slashing.. He makes it hard to double Scott, because he’s on the other side and he can make plays and he’s mobile enough to do a lot of things on the defensive side of the ball, as well. He can defend the perimeter.”

Cal’s perimeter shooting has been very streaky. After going 15-for-37 (40.5%) from beyond the arc in wins over Arizona and Arizona State, the Bears went 6-of-17 on Wednesday against Utah, with Jordan Mathews shooting 3-of-10 from the field and just 1-of-2 from three, and Jabari Bird going 3-of-11 and 2-of-6. Freshman Jaylen Brown went just 1-of-5 from long distance, though he did score a game-high 27 points against the Utes.

“What happens when you’re playing against good shooters, and I don’t know specifically what Utah’s game plan was, but just watching from afar, I would imagine [it was] take away shooters on the perimeter, force Sam [Singer] to beat you, force one of those bigs who’s in the game to beat you,” Martin said. “You can see how they pushed up on Jordan and Jabari, and Jaylen was able to make plays because of how they were defending when he was at the point, or when he was at the three-spot, attacking the rim and making plays.”

Cal’s big men – Okoroh and Kameron Rooks – have been very uneven. Though Rooks was able to pull down a career-high seven rebounds against Utah, he went just 1-of-2 at the line, and was overwhelmed by Utes big man Jakob Poeltl. Okoroh played 12 minutes, and had four fouls.

There were times where Martin did go to a smaller lineup, with just one big man in the game – and he was forced to, because of foul trouble – and while that does help the offense flow, it only flows when Bird and Mathews are hitting their shots. When it means that the big man in the middle has to play gingerly because he, too, is in foul trouble, defense suffers. With Scott and Gordon – who each have at least 20 pounds on freshman Ivan Rabb – playing disciplined down low and retaining a level of aggressiveness could prove difficult.

“What I think what happens with the smaller lineup, is spacing and you have space to play, because you have multiple threats to score the ball, especially when Ivan’s at the five position,” Martin said. “When Ivan’s at the five against Poeltl, Poeltl is a more physical threat around the rim, so now he creates issues for us on the defensive side of the ball, so it’s one of those give-and-take type of things. Now, I thought Kam did some good things in that game, but we have to get a presence around the rim, whether they’re scoring the ball or not, via the post feed.”

Given that Okoroh, Rooks and Rabb will have to defend mobile, versatile big men on Sunday, the issues they’ve had with moving their feet and hooking in the paint could come back to haunt the Bears in a big way, particularly with Scott, who is 13th in the Pac-12 in free throw percentage (75.6%), and Gordon, who is hitting a career-high 71.2% of his shots at the charity stripe.

“What happens when you’re playing against good shooters, and I don’t know specifically what Utah’s game plan was, but just watching from afar, I would imagine [it was] take away shooters on the perimeter, force Sam to beat you, force one of those bigs who’s in the game to beat you. You can see how they pushed up on Jordan and Jabari, and Jaylen was able to make plays because of how they were defending when he was at the point, or when he was at the three-spot, attacking the rim and making plays.”

Those issues have snowballed on Cal this season, particularly on the road. With guards trying to force action – particularly Brown – the Bears become susceptible to turnovers.

Starting at 18:10 in the second half, Utah went on a 15-2 run, during which the Utes didn't miss a single field goal, going 5-for-5. That run would turn into a 19-2 run, and that really was the story of the game. During that run, Cal went 1-for-5 with five turnovers. Utah scored 15 points off of 12 Cal turnovers, but those five turnovers in 6:13 were the real killer.

“When you’re on the road, you have to be really locked in. You can’t allow a run – a five-, six-point run – to change the game or change your mentality,” Martin said. “All of the sudden, it goes from five to 10, 10 to 15. I think that is the biggest key – just being sound, consistently. Really, on the road, it’s about defense. It’s about defense; you can’t have a lot of big breakdowns. Last game, against Utah, we made free throws. Now, you’ve got to make free throws, limit your turnovers and don’t give up home run plays; that will just destroy you on the defensive side of the ball.”

If that keeps happening – particularly on the road – it could be checkmante for a Cal team picked in the top-15 in preseason polls. Top Stories