More than perhaps any team yet this season, outside of Oregon, Arizona State -- which took the No. 4 Ducks down to the wire in a 71-70 loss at Matthew Knight Arena -- will push California in tonight's 8 p.m., ESPNU tilt in Tempe. They force opposing teams into early, bad shots, with opposing possessions lasting just 15.7 seconds -- fourth-lowest in the nation. They're also 53rd in the nation in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom.com. The Bears are 301st in adjusted tempo, owing to head coach Cuonzo Martin's offensive style.
The Bears have not been organized, strictly speaking, on offense. Multiple times against Colorado on Sunday, Ivan Rabb -- who still managed to eek out a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds -- was single-covered or open along the baseline, and didn't get a touch.
Rabb was able to pass out to three-point shooters left open by the decision to double-team him, but going into the 11-of-29 game from beyond the arc, the Bears (17-6, 8-3 in Pac-12), Cal was 218th in the nation in three-point shooting. Shooting from the perimeter, though, may be just the ticket against the Sun Devils (11-13, 4-7). Arizona State is 299th in the nation in three-point defense, with opponents shooting 37.7% this season.
The Bears have won four straight, although they've done it by shooting 33.0% from three-point range, below their three-point average for the season (34.6%). The fact remains: Cal is not a three-point shooting team, and one of its most capable scorers -- Rabb -- has been inconsistent, to say the least. While Rabb has tallied 12 double-doubles this season, he's scored in single digits five times in 21 games. Rabb has scored just 23 points over his last two games, after scoring 43 combined against Oregon State and Stanford.
Arizona State, on the other hand, is built around the perimeter, hitting three-point shots at a 37% clip (83rd in the nation), with shots from beyond the arc making up 43.1% of the Sun Devils' total field goal attempts (29th in the nation. Because of that, Arizona State ranks 44th in the nation in terms of offensive efficiency, in large part thanks to Buffalo transfer Shannon Evans. The junior guard is shooting 39.3% from beyond the arc (59-of-150), and is averaging 22.2 points per game over his last four. Another three-point sniper for the Sun Devils is Torian Graham, who's hitting 38.7% (74-for-191) of his three-point shots. Junior Kodi Justice has ben in a limited role this season, but h's hitting 41.9% of his three-point shots (39-of-93) and has a 55.8% effective field goal percentage -- tops on the team.
Last time against Cal, Evans scored nine in 37 minutes against Cal last time, with a game-high six assists and six rebounds, as Obinna Oleka led the charge with 18 points and six rebounds. During that game, Cal held the Sun Devils to 7-of-24 from beyond the arc.
"I just thought we did a good job," Martin said. "I don't think the score is a good indication of how that game really went for us. It was a close game down the stretch, and we got some stops, made a few plays, but they're scoring the ball extremely well. They really have five perimeter guys, and they start Oleka at the five spot. Very hard to guard. You saw the game they played at Oregon, where they went down to the wire. They can score the ball and stretch you out. You have five guys who can make three-point shots, five guys who can make plays. It's extremely tough."
One match that Cal has been able to use to light its offensive fire has been Charlie Moore, who's had 27 assists to 10 turnovers over his last four games, during which he's shot 6-for-15 from three. Over his last six games, Moore has shot 8-for-19 from three. In Pac-12 play, Moore is 13-for-37 (35.1%) from three.
"Charlie's a guy who can score the ball," Martin said. "Even though h's a point guard, he's been built to score the ball. he scores in a variety of ways, and he's the guy who wants to take the shot when the game is on the line, make plays with the game on the line. Early in the season, with [Jabari] Bird and Ivan out, we needed Charlie to score the ball. Really, in the last four or five games, he's done a great job of finding other guys, getting other guys the ball ... You can see that assist numbers for the team are going up because of that."
After Martin went small against the under-manned and under-sized Colorado on Sunday, he said he wouldn't do that again against Arizona State, which counts Oleka -- at 6-foot-8 -- as its tallest regular contributor, given that 6-foot-10 Jethro Tshisumpa averages just 7.5 minutes per game, and has only scored 25 total points. Tshisumpa played 13 minutes against Cal in Berkeley, and went 0-for-3, with three rebounds.
“Obi’s a tough kid,” said Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley. “He plays a lot bigger than his height just with his athletic ability. He’s got a 42-inch vertical and a good wingspan, and he’s got a nose for the ball and a desire to go after the ball. He realizes how important he is to our team ... Without him I’d be really scared about what our rebounding numbers would be this year.”
Given a paucity of true big men on the Arizona State roster, Martin could go with Roger Moute a Bidias, Sam Singer or Stephen Domingo to defend the perimeter, but that would take one of his three scorers -- Moore, Rabb and Bird -- off the court, and given Arizona State's tempo and their season scoring average of 81 points per game, that's probably not an enticing option.
If Dontae Coleman is healthy -- and he hasn't played in four of the last six games as he works back from a back injury suffered in a fall against Washington -- that gives the Bears some energy and speed to defend the perimeter and create inside off the dribble, but there's not been any substantive indication of his health, good or otherwise, as of late.
“The one thing that they lack is interior experience,” Cuonzo Martin says of the Sun Devils’ frontcourt. “Not that they lack talent -- there’s a difference. On the perimeter, they’re as good as anybody in our league -- there’s no question about that -- but I just think what happens, you go up against a team that can match them on the perimeter and then it comes down to the interior. I think they’re talented on the interior; they just don’t have the experience yet. But they have the talent.”
Given the lack of size on the inside, Rabb, along with Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh, need to find the soft spots underneath the basket against Hurley's zone, and if it collapses to double Rabb, look to the high post for Rooks, or find Bird and Moore in the corners. But, the concentration must first be in the middle. Cal can be a three-point shooting team (and against a soft Sun Devil perimeter defense, that may even be advisable), but the Bears' strength -- whether it's against Arizona State or independent of opponent -- has to be attacking the inside, and that means Rabb needs to step up and dominate. If Cal starts relying on the three, and that well goes dry, the Sun Devils could pull the upset.