Cal freshman Ivan Rabb's upward trend and snipers like Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird have powered Bears' win streak

We break down just what to expect in Arizona, players to watch and keys to the game, as well as what Cal's chances are to sneak into a Pac-12 title.

No. 25 Cal (21-8, 11-5 in Pac-12) vs. No. 18Arizona (22-7, 10-6)

When: 6:00 p.m. Pacific, Thurs., March 3
Where: McKale Center, Tucson, Ariz.
TV: ESPN (Dave Pasch, Bill Walton)
Radio: KSFO 560 AM - Todd McKim, Jay John
Radio: Westwood One (Brandn Gaudin, Mike Montgomery)
Sirius/XM: 81/81
Notes: Cal is in the top 25 to start the month of march for the first time since the Bears were No. 24 on March 10, 2003. After falling out of the rankings due to a loss in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, Cal did make the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bears entered this season ranked No. 14 by the Associated Press ... After starting the season 1-8 away from Haas Pavilion, Cal swept its last road trip against Washington and against Washington State for its first conference road wins in more than a year ... The Bears just finished the program's second-ever undefeated home season, going a program-best 18-0 at Haas ... The last time Cal went undefeated in Berkeley was the 1959-60 season, when the Bears won the conference championship and then the national title ... With a Cal win or a Colorado loss this weekend, the Bears clinch a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas, starting on March 9 ... With two games left, the Bears can still catch first-place Oregon for the Pac-12 title, but with two wins, Arizona can also enter the title picture. If Oregon loses to a reeling USC team, both Cal and Arizona have a chance to take the title, but Utah, at 12-5, has one game left against Colorado. If the Utes win, they would also have 13 conference wins, setting up a possible multi-team tiebreaker. If Oregon wins, the game is up, and the Ducks take home the regular-season banner. Here are the tiebreaker rules for the Pac-12:

Multi-Team Tiebreakers
a. Results of collective head-to-head competition during the regular season among the tied teams
b. If more than two teams are still tied, each of the tied team’s record vs. the team occupying the highest position in the final regular season standings, and then continuing down through the standings until one team gains an advantage. When arriving at another group of tied teams while comparing records, use each team’s record against the collective tied teams as a group (prior to that group’s own tie-breaking procedure), rather than the performance against individual tied teams. If at any point the multiple-team tie is reduced to two teams, the two-team tie-breaking procedure will be applied. 
c. Won-lost percentage against all Division I opponents. 
d. Coin toss conducted by the Commissioner or designee.

Two-Team Tiebreakers
a. Results of head-to-head competition during the regular season. 
b. Each team’s record vs. the team occupying the highest position in the final regular-season standings, and then continuing down through the standings until one team gains an advantage. When arriving at another group of tied teams while comparing records, use each team’s record against the collective tied teams as a group (prior to that group’s own tie-breaking procedure), rather than the performance against individual tied teams. 
c. Won-lost percentage against all Division I opponents. 
d. Coin toss conducted by the Commissioner or designee.

Championship Race
Oregon (13-4)

  • Teams left: @ USC (9-8), 1 p.m., Saturday

Utah (12-5)

  • Teams left: Colorado (10-7), 6:30 p.m., Saturday

Cal (11-5)

  • Teams left: Arizona (10-6), Arizona State (4-12)

Arizona (10-6)

  • Teams left: Cal (11-5), Stanford (8-8)

Once, Twice, Three Times a Sniper

Arizona is 67th in the nation in three-point percentage defense (32.4%). Not bad, by any stretch, and in fact, the WIldcats are second in the Pac-12 in that particular category. They'll have to contend with a three-point-shooting juggernaut, though, coming in to the McKale Center.

Starting with his back-to-back 20-point nights, Cal's Jabari Bird has gone on an absolute rampage from long distance over the last six games. Bird has hit 19 of 33 shots from beyond the three-point arc. To put that into perspective, that would be the sixth-best best shooting percentage from the field of any Pac-12 player this season. It would also be the best shooting percentage of anyone not taking the vast majority of their shots in the low post. During the last six games, Bird is averaging 15.7 points and 3.2 three-point makes per game. 

Not to be outdone is his recruiting classmate, Jordan Mathews. The junior out of Santa Monica, Calif., during the Bears' current seven-game winning streak, has gone 17-of-40 (42.5%) from beyond the arc, even with a 1-for-7 collar hanging around his neck from the UCLA game. Against USC, he shot 4-of-9 from beyond the arc. "There wasn't really a difference," Mathews said of the two games. "We won the UCLA game by double figures, so I didn't really worry about it at all, because we won. I looked at the tape, and I was fading away a little bit on some of the shots, and I wasn't following through like I normally do, so I went back to the basic, got extra shots up, mid-range shots, just shot hundreds of shots over again, and it came back on Sunday."

Beyond those two, freshman Jaylen Brown has hit at least one three-pointer in each of his last six games, going 10-for-22 (45.5%) over that span. Before his recent three-point assault, Brown had hit 26.5% from beyond the three-point arc.

"It helps a lot, because first of all, a team's got to guard JB, because he drives so well, so when he's making his outside shot, they've got to close short," said Mathews. "If they close too high, then he's driving. He's great at finding us, and other guys, like Jabari, who are making shots -- when Jabari's shooting the way he is now, they can't just do what they used to do, face-guard me and things like that. Even so, I welcome that, because we have guys who can make plays."

Since going 12-for-22 from three-point land as a team against Davidson on Dec. 29, Cal has gone 126-of-316 (39.9%) over its past 17 games, compared with 33.2% in the first 12 games. Since the 0-for-12 night against Oregon, Cal has shot 40.8% from three-point range (103-for-252).

"Guys that can make shots, and I can't remember back when, but there was a stretch we weren't shooting the ball very well from the three-point line," said head coach Cuonzo Martin. "So, it's been probably, to my recollection, the last three or four weeks, our guards, at the end of every practice, have to make at least 200 three-point shots. They have to make at least 200, so that means you're getting up a lot of shots. This time of year, there's not a lot of up-and-down, running in practice, physical banging in practice. You've got to get shots up, and I've always been a guy, this time of year, practice tapers off, so you have to be very detailed on what you're doing, but you have to spend a lot of time getting shots up, so maybe that's it, but also, guys that are making shots, they can make them, but it's getting them reps."

Key to the Game #2: The Forgotten Men

Last time these two teams met, neither had at least one of their best players. Allonzo Trier was in the midst of his seven-game absence due to injury, as Cal point guard Tyrone Wallace was in the midst of his five-game absence with a broken bone in his hand. Since Trier's return, though, the 6-foot-4 guard has averaged 14.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, shooting 42.6% from the field (29-for-69).

Wallace, since his return, is averaging 14.7 points per game, to go along with 6.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists per contest, while shooting an identical 29-of-69 from the field as Trier. Spooky, eh? During Wallace's absence, Cal averaged 70.2 points per game. Since he's returned, that average is up to 81, with an average margin of victory of 14.5 points, as the Bears have won all six games since Wallace came back. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have lost their last two in a row, to Colorado and No. 22 Utah. Before that, though, Arizona won its first four games with Trier back, and since he came off the shelf, the Wildcats are averaging 79.8 points per game, after scoring 81.0 per game without Trier. Curious, indeed.

While Arizona's scoring is eye-opening, so is Cal's defense. The Bears, during their seven-game winning streak, have held opponents to 65.7 points per game, and on the season, Cal is 14th in the nation in field goal percentage defense (38.9%) and 57th in scoring defense (66.7 ppg).

Where the Bears lack is in defending the perimeter, ranking 178th in the nation in three-point field goal defense (34.5%). Wallace's addition should help that, given his length, and while last time, the Wildcats went 4-of-9 from three-point range, they're not going to bomb it much from beyond the arc, ranking near the bottom of NCAA Division I in three-point attempts (309th in the nation, in fact), 268th in three-point field goals per game, and 75th in three-point field goal percentage (36.8%). What they do excel at, though, is post play, and that leads us to our third key to the game.

Key to the Game #2: Ivan Rabb

Arizona is 46th in the nation in blocked shots per game (4.7), sixth in defensive rebounds per game (29.34), fourth in rebounding margin (10.7) and, despite the lack of three-point shooting, 20th in scoring offense. Two of the Wildcats' top four scorers are post players -- 6-foot-9, 235-pound Ryan Anderson and seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, who are averaging 15.8 and 9.4 points per game, respectively, while Trier checks in at 15.1, and guard Gabe York averages 14.3.

"Obviously a very talented team," Martin said. "I think they have a good collection of, in my opinion, the best bigs in the league, across the board. When you have big guys that are able to catch, catch and score, face up and score, back to the basket scoring, rebound and score, also, make free throws, they have good size. Good length, physical guys. Gabe York has been very good for those guys for a long time, has made big shots for them for a long time. Allonzo Trier can score the ball, very talented young guy. Has a tremendous ability to put the ball in the basket. A lot of parts, and they're going to be a great challenge." While, given the current Bay Area climate (foggy with a high chance of three-pointers) places a lot of emphasis on the long ball, the post game, at least in college, is where the real action happens.

As it was last time out, when he scored 10 and added four rebounds, going 4-of-7 from the field and staying on the floor for 37 minutes despite four fouls, the real key is Rabb.

After seeing single-digit shot attempts in six straight games, Rabb was far more aggressive against USC, demanding looks and going 5-of-10 from the floor, while hitting 8-of-10 from the free throw line, pulling down five offensive rebounds and 10 on the whole, for his ninth double-double of the season.

Going back to when he was at Oakland (Calif.) Bishop O’Dowd, for three years, he was the biggest (both literally and figuratively) prospect in the Bay Area. Everyone knew his name. He could – and sometimes did – dominate, while appearing to go only 50 percent. He wasn’t lazy. He was economical. Like a 6-foot-10 Volvo. Like Tim Duncan, from afar, he looked disinterested, but up close, you could see him almost become frustrated with how easily the games came to him.

"Guys, in most cases, 90 percent of the teams he played against, he was the best player on the floor, in every situation," Martin said.

In fact, Duncan is probably the best comparison for Rabb. He’s the Big Sleepy. Early in the season, the soft-spoken Rabb had trouble being vocal enough to demand the ball in the paint.

"I just didn't think [leading] was my role," Rabb said of his experience early in the season. "I was just trying to figure everything out."

It's different, now.

"I mean, I'm starting to realize that guys actually listen," Rabb said. "I'm comfortable talking, but as of recently, I figured out that guys are actually listening to what I'm saying, so why not use it? To a certain point, I didn't really expect it. If we're in a really big game, and I say something, guys would go, 'Yeah, you're right,' so I'm just starting to use that to my advantage."

"I've always been impressed with how composed Ivan always is, on and off the court," Mathews said. "His growth, even in practice, has been staggering since the beginning of practice. He does a great job motivating guys, and my freshman year, that wasn't our role. We didn't do that. To have a young guy come in, someone who's a freshman, come in and be able to be one of the other voices, instead of it always being a senior or one of the junior class, to have a freshman be willing to talk to the other guys, is refreshing and something that's really helped us these last couple weeks."

Rabb showed that against USC. Now, the Big Sleepy may have woken up. Just as he did down the stretch last year for the Dragons, Rabb appears as though he's shifting into another gear.

"That's what people say," Martin said. "I just think, we talk about it all the time, and I go back to my days when coach [Gene] Keady wanted me to shoot the ball more. When I took one, I felt comfortable with it. I think that's the same thing with Ivan. He's a talented player. He gauges and probes, and he makes his decision. It's at his own pace, but I've always thought he was a better shooter than -- I shouldn't say what he's shown, because he doesn't shoot a lot -- but he can really shoot the ball. We do talk a lot about that, shooting the ball from the perimeter, because he can make shots."

Buried in that statement is a tantilizing clue to what we could see in a Tournament run. In practice, though the doors have been closed, whispers have leaked out about Rabb resurrecting a weapon we haven’t seen from him since his senior year at Bishop O’Dowd—the three-point shot. Were Rabb to stay another year -- and, given what sources have said, he likely won't -- that would be something he could very well develop, but we may see a preview of it sooner, rather than later.

But, for the moment, Rabb is leaving the three-point shooting to the experts, and against the Wildcats, that's probably the best idea. 

What helps both Rabb and Cal's outside shooters are the other two big men -- Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks -- have both been factors on defense, and have allowed Rabb to play the four -- his natural position. Rooks and Okoroh have averaged 19.3 minutes and 10.6 minutes per game over the seven-game winning streak, with season averages of 16.3 and 10.2, respectively.

"I think we became a better team when Kam and King were in heavy rotation, just [their] physical presence around the rim, so that's probably for me, as a coach, not having those guys on the floor early in the season they have a physical presence, and not afraid to bang," Martin said. "They continue to work and improve on fouling situations, and sometimes I watch film on some of those, but that's part of it. They set a different tone, now that we take our chances with those guys going one-on-one, and doing a good job defending, especially when teams normally don't go down on the blocks all the time, we'll take our chances. In a lot of cases, they might score a couple, but they're out of rhythm, because that's not what they normally do. I think they've really helped us."

Having Rabb at the four allows Brown to play his natural position -- the three -- and lets both players be as effective as possible.

"I think it really helps Ivan, but in some ways, Ivan was able to get away [with it] in certain games, at the center position, in the preseason, because certain teams were smaller, but from a physical standpoint, it still wasn't ideal for him, because he can score the ball and spread guys out," Martin said. "You're able to benefit from that, but we weren't a very good defensive team with the lineups we had on the floor, because of that, and not necessarily because Ivan was at the five, but it was more because our guards didn't do a great job defending and rebounding." Top Stories