The Cal basketball team got some unwelcome publicity a week ago when a shove by head coach Mike Montgomery to the chest of guard Allen Crabbe got national attention. What that’s overshadowing is that Cal is coming on as strong as any team in the country. The Golden Bears, seemingly a longshot just to make the NCAA Tournament, have won five straight and improbably become a contender for the Pac-12 title in the regular season’s final two weeks.
A February 7 loss to Arizona State dropped Cal to 14-9 overall. However, they haven’t lost since and it’s not a soft schedule that’s inflating their win-loss record. The Golden Bears have won at Arizona, won at Oregon and beaten UCLA. They’ve also won at USC, a team that turned around its season after an early coaching change and has a winning record in conference play. So is Montgomery’s team really peaking in time for the NCAAs or is this just a case of another team being the flavor of the month, only to fade away?
Cal is built on its backcourt. Crabbe is a great player, averaging 19 ppg and he’s ably supported by Justin Cobb, at 15 ppg. Both guards share the ball and both chip in some rebounding. The forwards, Richard Solomon and David Kravish aren’t scorers, but they do rebound and give Cal just enough physicality to ensure their great guard play isn’t wasted.
The winning streak started two weeks ago today with the road trip to Arizona, a game that was set up to jam a fork in Cal’s NCAA hopes. Instead, the Crabbe and Cobbs shot the lights out, going a combined 20-for-29 for 52 points to lead the 77-69 upset. As impressive as the showing was, we could be forgiven for thinking that it was just one hot shooting game at an opportune time. But Cal was able to follow it up by beating UCLA at home, 76-63. This was in spite of the Bruins holding a definite edge on scoring from three-point range (nine treys to Cal’s two). In this case, Cal’s 50 percent shooting from the floor wasn’t about being hot, it was about inside scoring. Kravish and Solomon combined for 35 points and 21 rebounds, even more impressive when you consider how physical the opponent is.
Crabbe and Cobbs cranked it back up for the USC game, combining for 45 points, while the frontcourt did the dirty work of producing a 35-24 rebounding advantage and Cal got to the line consistently. Then it was time for the defense to step it up a notch. The shooting wasn’t there in Thursday’s trip to Pac-12 leader Oregon, or yesterday at Oregon State, but Cal held its opponents to 27 percent shooting in Thursday’s two-point win and 35 percent in a one-point escape on Saturday.
What it all boils down to is that Cal is showing they can win just about any way an opponent wants to play. They can destroy you with their guards. Their forwards can match up in a physical game. If the offense isn’t flowing smoothly, the Bears can bail themselves out with defense.
The one thing this team does not do very well is shoot the three-ball. Even in this five-game win streak, they’re only shooting 29 percent from three-point range, while the opponents are at 35 percent. Like all of Montgomery’s teams, Cal does a good job in staying away from its weakness, and Crabbe is the only player who shoots from behind the arc with any regularity—at 35 percent he’s just good enough to justify it, but not good enough for an opposing defense to stretch and risk getting beaten off the dribble.
Cal is now just one game back in the loss column and projected as a #12 seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi in the projections that were last updated on Friday. They’ll play the last three regular season games for both a championship and for survival. And the schedule isn’t imposing—all three will be at home and the toughest will be against fellow NCAA bubble team Colorado. There isn’t any reason to think Cal can’t close the season with three straight wins, lock up a bid and perhaps steal an improbable conference championship.
KEEPING UP WITH COLORADO
Speaking of Colorado, the Buffs are currently projected as a #10 seed, a projection that factors in an overtime loss earlier this week to Arizona State. Colorado has a well-balanced attack with four players averaging between 10-15 points per game. But one of those pieces—6’11” freshman Josh Scott is out with a concussion.
The Buffs need Scott back to balance out their lineup. They have good guards in Askia Bookie and Spencer Dinwiddie. Forward Andre Roberson is a good scorer and excellent rebounder. Scott makes them complete and a threat to win the Pac-12 tournament for the second straight year.
Colorado has a key week ahead, with a road game at 16-12 Stanford preceding next weekend’s date at Cal. Then the Buffs host Oregon to start the regular season’s final week. That’s three difficult games of which they need to be thinking about winning at least two. Then Colorado closes it out with a home date against Oregon State.