BERKELEY -- California freshman Jabari Bird and Aaron Gordon only faced each other once in high school. Last year, Bird's Richmond (Calif.) Salesian stomped Gordon's San Jose (Calif.) Archbishop Mitty 72-51 at Cal State East Bay on Dec. 22, with Bird going off for 19 points and 10 boards, while Gordon scored 18.
"We were up by 30," Bird smiles. "He probably won't remember that, but we were up by 30."
The two played three summers of AAU ball together, and have of course seen one another since then, at the McDonald's All-American Game, and over the summer, but this will be the first time the two have faced off against one another since that night in December of 2012.
"The summer before we went to college, we hung out one time before he went back to Arizona," Bird says. "I check on him, see how he's doing."
Gordon and the No. 1 Wildcats – the first No. 1 team the Bears have faced at Haas Pavilion since the 2002-03 season – have been doing just fine, of course, in Gordon's freshman season, with a 21-0 overall record and an 8-0 mark in Pac-12 play. Gordon is averaging 11.95 points and 7.86 rebounds per game (eighth in the league), and his 2.76 offensive boards per game rank fourth in the Pac-12 behind Richard Solomon's 2.84.
"He's pretty much the three-man for them," says Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "Maybe going the other way, the thing is, you'd better block off. They really have been rebounding the ball. The ball's shot, you'd better get a body on somebody away from the basket, because they go hard to the glass. If you get in a jumping contest, you're not going to win that. They're quick off their feet, they get to the ball very quickly."
Bird has trod a different path in his first college season, missing three weeks due to a sprained ankle, and is just now getting his legs back under him. In his five games back, Bird has averaged just 4.4 points and 1.8 assists, shooting 34.6% (9-for-26) from the field and tallying just four total rebounds. Before he went down, Bird was averaging 11.3 points and 3.1 rebounds and shooting 41.9% (44-for-105). The Bears are currently on a three-game slide in conference play, after starting 5-0 against Pac-12 opponents.
"I've watched Aaron a lot," Bird says. "He's on the No. 1 team in the country, and you can't help but watch that to see what the formula is for success. I'm definitely keeping tabs on him, seeing how he's doing, and I'm proud of him. I'm happy for what he's doing down there, and I'm looking forward to playing them."
Cal has yet to find the right formula of late, particularly for getting over slow starts that, even during the Bears' winning streak, plagued the team.
Bird finally got into a rhythm against UCLA, going on a 12-point tear in the second half before pooping out. Likewise, the Bears – down by as many as 16 on Wednesday against Arizona State – came back to take a three-point lead in the final seconds, only to drop the contest in overtime.
"I think I'm almost there," Bird says. "I think, for me, it's just playing with confidence, playing with energy, like I played in that four-minute spurt against UCLA. If I can continue to play like that, I should be fine. I should help the team a lot more."
Bird has been on the floor, on the bench and injured for most of the slow starts, and despite his varied vantage points, still has no bead on what exactly has caused them.
"We just don't know," Bird says. "We've had games where we come out firm, with everyone hitting on all cylinders, just attacking from the start. Then, we've had games like UCLA, where we come out tentative and we get down by 18. Same with the Arizona State game. Honestly, right now, from my perspective, I don't know what's going on, but, hopefully, the way we play when we go into these big ones, when we come back from these deficits, we have to come out like that against Arizona. The goal for the next game is to get a lead, keep the lead and win the game. It probably won't be that easy, but as long as we don't get down like we've been doing for the past few games, we should be fine."
Arizona is a physical enough team that they can bully the Bears down low, which could exacerbate the slow start problem.
"They're very good defensively," Montgomery says. "You don't want to get down, because you're going to have a very hard time scoring, regardless. They're very, very good defensively. They work hard at it, they're very athletic, they've got shot blockers, they're physical."
Getting physical, though, may be the key to break the mental funk that seizes the Bears at the start of games.
"It's like football," Montgomery says. "You have to hit somebody first. You try to have some success, and I would say, in football, you've got to go hit somebody – ‘Oh, OK, now I'm in a football game' – you've got to get into the game somehow, take a charge, dive on the floor for a loose ball, do something, rather than just rely on shooting to be how you judge yourself. That puts a lot of pressure on you. Get the basket, get to the foul line, get contact, do some things like that."
With wing Ricky Kreklow still unavailable – he did practice in full on Thursday for the first time since injuring his wrist, but is still two or three games away from returning, according to Montgomery -- and the inconsistent scoring of sophomore Tyrone Wallace, Bird will be key against the Wildcats. The game has a little more juice for him, after all.
"Whenever I play Aaron, I want to beat him in everything I do," Bird said. "That's just the type of friendship we have. It definitely helps that it's the No. 1 team in the country. That adds a little bit more to it. But, I take it as another game. They're a great team. We're a good team, ourselves; we're just struggling right now. There's no better way to get out of a slump than to beat the No. 1 team in the country. High school was one thing, and I got him, but we're going to face them twice this year, so we'll see who gets that."
Bird and Gordon, though, likely won't be facing one another, head-to-head.
"That's not a good match-up for him," Montgomery says. "It's a problem. Tyrone maybe might be an OK match-up, but if Tyrone gets in foul trouble, I don't know what direction you go, then, if he's the three-man. He's a beast."
Bird played with another Bay Area product currently balling for Arizona – sophomore forward Brandon Ashley -- on the Oakland Soldiers for a summer, and played against freshman Elliot Pitts of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle. Pitts is unlikely to see much time, but Ashley is certainly a force in the middle for the Wildcats, averaging 12.0 points per game (second on the team) and 6.0 rebounds.
"Everybody knew Aaron Gordon was just a monster," Montgomery says. "Everybody saw that. Brandon's developing nicely … Their front line is scary. They're big, physical, great rebounders. You add Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to the mix, they're a really good rebounding team, and very physical. Ashley's long. He's improved his skills each and every year. He's kind of a little bit of a hybrid – 3-4-5, somewhere in there – I don't think he's a three, and I don't think he's a five, so he probably settles on the four. He's a long rebounding guy that plays hard."
Montgomery's task since the loss to the Sun Devils has been to keep his team's morale up, particularly with Arizona coming into town at perhaps the best time for them, with the Bears on their three-game slide.
"This isn't easy for anybody," Montgomery says. "Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oregon, Colorado – they were all ranked – and now they're losing game after game after game, so it's not unique. A lot of it has to do with who you're playing and if you're playing well at the time and a variety of different things."
Then again, as Bird says, the season is far from over.
"The year's not over yet. Whatever plan I had, I still haven't reached it, because the season's not over with," he says. "We've still got a lot of games left. We're not in a bad spot right now. We're in a decent spot for conference – we're 5-3 – and I think last year, they were 5-5 at one point, and then they had that big turnaround. There's still time for improvement. We have a lot of hope and confidence."
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