PREVIEW: Utah's Jakob Poeltl and Kyle Kuzma provide two challenges for No. 3-seed Cal in Pac-12 semifinal

LAS VEGAS -- Jakob Poeltl may be the big draw, but No. 2-seed Utah has other weapons Cal has to worry about in tonight's Pac-12 Tournament semifinal.

LAS VEGAS -- No. 3-seed California faces a tough challenge on Friday night in Pac-12 Player of the Year Jakob Poeltl and his No. 2-seed Utah Utes, and last time these two squared off, it wasn't pretty for the Bears bigs.

After being (somewhat) limited during Cal's first encounter with Utah (to 19 points, scoring consecutive baskets just once over the course of the game), Poeltl was all over Bears center Kameron Rooks the second time out, finishing with his right hand exclusively in a Jan. 27 tilt at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.

Poeltl poured in 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting that night, adding nine rebounds in 37 minutes of play. The seven-foot Austrian dominated the right block, and took advantage of early foul trouble on the part of Kingsley Okoroh (four fouls in 12 minutes) and went right at Rooks. "In Utah, he did a really good job, and he was scoring at will," Rooks recalled. "They're always going to him, so we've got to keep him off the block."

Thursday's hero -- freshman Ivan Rabb -- finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds, contending with double teams in the post on all but one touch, going 1-of-5 from the floor in the first half. Poeltl, at 248 pounds, is a load, and is nearly 30 pounds heavier than Rabb, which makes the challenge in the post -- especially if Okoroh and Rooks get into foul trouble -- that much more of a mis-match.

"Well, I think the first thing when you have one of the best bigs in college basketball, he can score, he can pass it, rebounds the basketball, makes a great decision with the ball, so when you double him, you have to be very careful," said head coach Cuonzo Martin. "They have guys that can make shots."

On Thursday, USC tried to double Poeltl to neutralize him, but that came at great cost, as Kyle Kuzma was left wide open. The 6-foot-9, 221-pounder is long and athletic, which should give a lot of trouble to both post and perimeter defenders. Against the Trojans, Kuzma shot 11-of-12 from the field and 1-of-1 from three-point range, tallying a team-high 23 points and adding seven rebounds, second only to Poeltl's eight.

"Kuzma, he did a great job getting open to the ball, when they doubled Jakob," Rabb said. "He was getting a lot of easy paint touches, and finishing around the basket, so credit to him ... We respect [Poeltl] as a player. We know what he's capable of."

The Utes were in control for much of the game, but USC wouldn't go away, equalling Utah's 39 second-half points thanks to the shooting of Julian Jacobs, who went 6-of-10 in the second half for 12 points. At least on Thursday, Cal wasn't able to rely on that kind of shooting from its point guard -- Tyrone Wallace -- who went 1-of-9 from the field, but did tally 10 of the Bears' 16 assists. But, remember this: Last time out, the Bears did not have Wallace against Utah. Assistant Wyking Jones told BearTerritory that Wallace "is like another coach out there," so having Wallace on the floor is going to be a boon.

"It was still a really competitive game," said Rabb of the USC-Utah tilt. "It seemed like the tables could have turned really quick, with a small run by 'SC."

Last time against the Bears, Kuzma and Jordan Loveridge served to wall off the offensive boards, holding Cal to 12 of 39 on offensive rebounding opportunities.

With Rabb neutralized down low last time out, the ball stuck around the perimeter, with Jabari Bird in particular forcing up very low-percentage shots without his feet set, trying to make something happen.

That wasn't the recipe on Thursday, as Bird wailed on Oregon State with a 5-of-7 night from beyond the arc and a 7-of-11 night from the floor, with Rabb going 9-of-11.

Apart from Bird, though, Cal went 4-of-13 from three-point range, with Jordan Mathews going 3-of-8, and missing four of his first five. Utah is in the middle of the Pac-12 in three-point defense (36.2%), but is right behind the Bears when it comes to overall field goal percentage defense, with Cal sitting atop the league (39.2%) and Utah right on its heels with a 41% opponent shooting percentage.

In large part thanks to low-post scoring from Poeltl and Kuzma, Utah is tops in the conference in field goal percentage (49.2%), with Poeltl shooting 66.1% from the field (best in the league) and scoring 17.4 points per game (second in the Pac-12). Kuzma is 15th in shooting (52.2%). Rabb is right behind Poeltl at 61.5% from the floor. "I don't think Brandon Taylor gets the credit he deserves, in my opinion," Martin said of Utah's starting guard, who shot just 3-of-9 on Thursday, but did manage four rebounds and five assists, adding two steals. "A tough, hard-nosed guy. Makes big plays, makes big shots. I think those two guys [Taylor and Poeltl] make them go. Other key guys, they understand their role and they know what to do to be successful as a team. So that's one of the teams that you have to beat them. They won't give you the game."

Against the Trojans, Poeltl and Kuzma accounted for 24 of Utah's 34 points in the paint, with Kuzma able to get lay-ups at will, scoring 16 of his points in the key.

Also a sneaky threat was JuCo transfer guard Lorenzo Bonam, who went 5-of-5 from the field and 2-of-2 from three-point range.

Each of the conference's top three three-point shooters are still alive in the tournament, with Mathews (84 three-point field goals), Loveridge (82) and Arizona's Gabe York (89), so Friday night should be interesting from beyond the arc, if all three can get going. 

Another X-factor:  Jaylen Brown. The Cal freshman went 1-for-6 from the floor on Thursday, and turned the ball over six times. The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year knows he needs to play better.

"I'm just being careless with the ball right now," Brown said. "I've got to pick it up and be better. It's completely my fault. I can do better, and I will do better. I think I'm overthinking things. Oregon State, the zone came out, and they did a good job hiding looks and disguising defensive things, so I have to make the right reads, make the right play and be strong with the basketball."

Brown has hit just six of 25 shots over the last three games.

"We live to fight another day, so I've got to come out [Friday] and play the way I know I can play, trust my teammates and trust myself, and I'll be alright."

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