Joe Camporeale / USA TODAY Sports

Preview: Cal had the game it needed to against Arizona State, but faces ranked Arizona needing a signature win

What did Cal's win over Arizona State mean for Saturday's tilt against No. 9 Arizona? What did the Wildcats' squeaker over Stanford mean for them? We take an in-depth look.

With six more games to go -- four on the road -- California (18-6, 9-3 in Pac-12) is firmly on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. The Bears need a season-defining win. Twice in the last three years, that win has come at home against No. 9 Arizona, who host Cal at 7 p.m., on Saturday, on ESPN2.

"We played them earlier this year, and they're a very tough team," said sophomore forward Ivan Rabb. "We need to put our hardhats on and do everything we can to get a win."

The Bears are coming in hot, winners of five straight, and eight of their last nine, sitting in third place in the Pac-12, one win ahead of No. 10 UCLA, and two games behind the first-place Wildcats. Arizona barely escaped in a 74-67 win over Stanford on Wednesday night, winning their 16th straight. In their first game against Stanford, the Wildcats had won by 39. The difference? A 27-point loss to No. 5 Oregon Ducks suffered on Saturday.

"I think coming off of the way we got beat at Oregon, you worry about confidence, and togetherness, because we got killed," said Arizona head coach Sean Miller. "It wasn't close. The game was over, in, really, the first five minutes, and they at one point went 16-for-21 from the three-point line. Their defense was even better than their offense ... They out-classed us, from top to bottom."

Cal led Arizona by as many as 13 at Haas Pavilion when those two teams first met, but lost by five in the Pac-12 opener on Dec. 30.

"We have to play better," head coach Cuonzo Martin said on Tuesday, reflecting on the first match-up of the season. "I think they did a great job in the second half, came out aggressive, very assertive, made plays."

That game was emblematic of Cal's inability to finish the job in the first half of the season. The Cardinal led the Bears by as many as six when the two rivals met on Jan. 29, but Cal got out to a lead as large as 15, with 2:18 to go, before hanging on for a 77-66 win.

Before that, the Bears had led Utah by 14, needing double overtime to do it. Cal led by 22 against Wyoming before allowing the Cowboys to get within five. Against UC Irvine on Nov. 16, the Bears led by as many as 13, but needed overtime to finally put the Anteaters away.

“They might be [mentally] stronger, but my heart is getting weak,” Martin said after Sunday's win over Colorado, a game in which the Bears led by as many as 23, before the Buffaloes got to within seven in the final minute. “For some reason, we just get in situations where we get a little fancy, we go off script, crazy stuff happens.”

Despite not being truly able to finish off opponents earlier in the campaign, Cal kept the pedal floored in a 68-43 over Arizona State on Wednesday, arguably its most complete win of the season . The Bears played possessed against the Sun Devils, a team that they struggled to dispatch at Haas Pavilion.

Cal out-rebounded physically over-matched Arizona State 48-29, got 13 points off the bench to the Sun Devils' two, scored 36 points in the paint to 22 for Arizona State, and racked up 14 assists to the Sun Devils' eight. The only stat where the Bears were appreciably outmatched is a familiar one -- points off of turnovers. Despite cutting down on the miscues in the second half against the Sun Devils, Cal still turned the ball over 17 times on the night. On the season, the Bears turn the ball over on 18.7% of their offensive possessions, squarely in the middle of the pack, nationally, at 162nd out of 351 teams. Arizona (18.3% turnover rate on defense is 210th) isn't going to be as pesky as their cross-state rivals (ASU is at 18.6%, 186th), or Oregon (21.0%), which ranks fifth in the nation, but given that Cal was at its best on Wednesday in nearly every aspect of its game, and turnovers were still an issue, it's a number to keep an eye on.

Cal's first game against Arizona State was tied as late as 5:45 to go in the second half, but on Wednesday, the Bears led by as many as 27, won by 25 and never led by less than 13 in the second half, and holding the high-scoring Sun Devils (second in the Pac-12 with an 81.2 ppg average going into the game) to just 17 points in the first half.

With 23 man games missed due to injury, the Bears were out-of-sorts early in the year, and then had to undergo two lengthy re-adjustment periods after Jabari Bird (six games), Kameron Rooks (10 games) and Rabb (a month of preseason practice, and two games missed due to mononucleosis and a sprained ankle) returned. 

As soon as the calendar turned to February, something happened to the Bears. Over Martin's first two seasons, the Bears were 8-6, with a -3.0 points per game scoring margin in February. Over the past two seasons, Cal is 10-0 in the month of February, with an average margin of victory of 13.0 points. 

Now, comes the re-match with the Wildcats.

Watching the Wildcats

The Bears have had two chances to score that win -- one against the Wildcats, and one on Dec. 21 in a 56-52 loss to then-No. 12 Virginia. Cal led the Cavaliers by as many as six points, and led 44-42 with 5:24 to go before wilting down the stretch, going 3-for-9 from the field to end the game.

With one more game against a ranked team scheduled in Pac-12 play -- against an Oregon team which blew out the Bears 86-63 on Jan. 19 -- this is likely Cal's final opportunity for that big, marquee win.

"We had a lot of injuries, guys were in, guys were out," Rabb said on Wednesday night. "We're just starting to build our chemistry. We're peaking at the right time. We still have a lot games left, so we need to build on this progress, build on this win, try to make it into that Tournament."

Since getting Allonzo Trier back on Jan. 21, the Wildcats are 5-1, but their average point differential has been +6.0 points per game, with an 85-58 loss to No. 4 Oregon skewing the numbers. That shaken confidence showed against Stanford. On a larger scale, though, despite the fact that Trier is averaging 15.5 points, 2.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game, Arizona's average margin of victory since Trier has returned is 12.6 points per win. Before Trier returned, the Wildcats' average margin of victory was 15.4. It's been an uneven re-integration, despite the fact that his return sparked an upset of previously impervious UCLA, when the then-No. 14 Wildcats shocked the No. 3 Bruins, 96-85, at Pauley Pavilion. Trier chipped in 12 points in his first game of the season.

"It doesn't change anything," Martin said of Trier's return. "They were good without Allonzo. Allonzo's a big-time ballplayer, a guy who can score the ball inside, get to the rim and make plays. They’re a good team. They don’t stop doing what they do. We understand what we have to do; we have to game plan to win the ballgame. That’s the goal. I don’t think it changes anything we do. They have good players, and we know what he brings to the table.”

Another name to keep an eye on is Kobi Simmons. The big freshman guard scored 20 against UCLA, and is averaging 11.2 points, 2.6 assists and 2.2 rebounds per game.

"I thought Kobi really set the tone for those guys in the second half, kind of changed the game for them," Martin said of Simmons, who went 4-of-8 after the break in the teams' first meeting in December, scoring a team-high 10 second-half points. "We expect to play tough. We just didn't play well down the stretch. They did, and won the ballgame."

Against then-No. 18 Arizona in December, Cal gave up 15 points off of 10 turnovers, and were out-rebounded 40-35. Rabb went 7-of-13 from the field for 16 points and pulled down 16 rebounds, but was without seven-footer Kameron Rooks to take some of the pressure off of him in the low post. The Bears went a combined 3-of-15 from three-point range with Rabb unable to find open shooters. That wasn't the case on Wednesday, as Rabb was as imposing as he's been this season, and more assertive than he's been, largely over the last two years, with few exceptions.

Over the last 11 games, Cal has shot 36.4% from three, compared to a 32.4% mark for the rest of the season. It's no coincidence that for the last 10 of those 11 games, Rooks has been back in the mix, after coming off of knee surgery. "I always come back to Ivan Rabb," said Miller. "I think he's one of the most understated players in all of college basketball. Sometimes, when you leave your freshman year, you come back as a sophomore, you get put in almost that upperclassman category, and I think, in Ivan's case, that's the furthest thing that he needs. He's one of the best players in the country. He does so many great things for Cal, not only his scoring and his rebounding, but he scores with both hands in such a unique way. Watching him, his shooting away from the basket has really improved. He's physically stronger, [a] shot blocker. Defensively, he can guard the four or the five. Their overall physical size, being able to play a guy like Ivan at the four makes Cal a great rebounding team, a great defensive team, and they can kill you inside with second shots."

Not having Rooks to deal with, and with a blow-average game behind the three-point arc on the Bears' part, allowed the Wildcats to send double teams on almost every Rabb touch last time out, and their doubles were much more sizable than what Arizona State was able to muster -- seven-foot Serbian Dusan Ristic, 6-foot-11 Chance Comanche and seven-foot freshman Lauri Markkanen, a contender for the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

Markkanen is ranked No. 19 nationally in offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions), at 131.9, and can be an ace beyond the three-point arc, hitting 47.5% from three-point range (57-of-120). That versatility and that size could cause a lot of problems for the Bears, but Cal effectively shut Markkanen down last time out, holding him to 2-of-5 shooting for eight points in 15 minutes.

Since that night, he's shooting 53.5% from the field, 54.7% from three, averaging 28.9 minutes, pulling down 7.0 rebounds per game and scoring 15.2 points.

Markkanen, though, was largely silent against Oregon and Oregon State, going 2-for-11 from the field with just 10 total rebounds, and Miller pledged to get him in better situations. Markkanen wasn't much more effective against Stanford, going 2-of-9 with just three rebounds in 28 minutes. Markkanen has been slow to develop an inside game (at the very least, it lags behind his outside game). The Bears -- almost exclusively (painfully so) a man-defense team under Martin -- went almost exclusively to the zone against the three-ball-inclined Sun Devils, and dared them to shoot. It was stifling, even agains a team that, on paper, would seem to be able to shoot Cal right out of the 2-3 look.

Will the zone work against a team like Arizona? Part of why it worked against Arizona State was the element of surprise, and given the paucity with which it's been practiced over the last two years, it's probably not advisable to go to the well too often. Arizona is 36th in the nation in three-point percentage (38.6%), but isn't build around the three like the Sun Devils. If Miller truly is dedicated to feeding Markkanen more inside, then the zone may not be the ticket. Plus, the Wildcats take an average of 30.5% of their shots from beyond the arc, 310th in the nation -- fewer even than the Bears (34.7%; 213th).

That said, the zone is like a how-me slider from a young pitcher: it's going to stick in the backs of the Wildcats' minds -- the fact that the Bears can do it, and do it well, plays a part in the X's and O's chess match. But the zone is just one (relatively new) aspect of a Cal defense that now ranks eighth in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency (91.4 points allowed per 100 defensive possessions).

Opponents are shooting a 43.7 effective field goal percentage against the Bears, also eighth in the nation. Cal is holding teams to 24.4% of offensive rebounding opportunities (16th), blocking 13.3% of shots (36th) and are holding opposing teams to a 42.9% field goal percentage inside the three-point line, good for ninth in the nation.

Arizona is averaging 116.5 points per 100 possessions -- 25th in the nation -- and the Wildcats' defense isn't too shabby, either, checking in at 26th in adjusted defensive efficiency (95.2), meaning that an oftentimes disjointed, halting Bears offense isn't going to be able to get into much of a rhythm, especially against a versatile defensive team that can play either man or several different flavors of zone. Top Stories