California-San Diego St. Preview
California has only faced inferior opponents and shouldn't see a ranked one until the week of Christmas. Thanksgiving, though, won't be for just sitting back and relaxing.
The 14th-ranked Golden Bears know a big step-up in competition comes Thursday night against San Diego State in the Las Vegas Invitational, and even if they get through this one unscathed, another test looms the following day.
"I'm excited to go to Vegas and see what we're made of," Cal freshman Jaylen Brown said. "We've been preparing all week and all season. All the suicides, yelling, screaming and encouragement, this is what it's for."
The four teams California (4-0) has played are mid-major programs with a combined 4-11 record. The only Top 25 foe on the schedule before Pac-12 play is No. 12 Virginia on Dec. 22.
San Diego State (3-2) isn't off to a particularly strong start, but coach Steve Fisher's squad has appeared in the last six NCAA Tournaments and was picked to win the Mountain West.
Additionally, the Aztecs were much better than the Bears against East Carolina - the teams' lone common opponent as part of this event. Cal never led by more than 11 points and was ahead by only three with under two minutes left in a 70-62 victory Friday. Three nights later, San Diego State scored the game's first 16 points against the Pirates and were never threatened in a 79-54 win.
The only time the Aztecs allowed more than 61 points was a road loss to then-No. 16 Utah on Nov. 16, and they've yet to let an opponent shoot better than 40.0 percent.
"They're physical, athletic and long and always one of the better defensive teams in the country," said Cal coach Cuonzo Martin, who added that SDSU's defensive prowess is "the sign of an elite basketball team."
Another good one awaits both teams Friday in the final or consolation game. West Virginia is 4-0 after reaching the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals last season, and Richmond's 3-1 record includes a road win over Wake Forest.
"It's going to be a huge weekend for us," Fisher said. "Thanksgiving night with Cal, a legitimate top-10 team, and either West Virginia or Richmond, who are both very, very good, so we're excited to be playing two teams of high caliber. I like the disposition and attitude of our team."
Fisher's biggest challenge Thursday is cooling a Cal offense scoring 85.3 points per game behind three longtime starting guards and two talented freshman big men.
Fourth-year starter Tyrone Wallace is averaging 20.3 points and 5.5 assists while shooting 60.4 percent. Jordan Mathews is 9 of 19 from 3-point range after leading the Pac-12 at 44.3 percent last season, and fellow junior Jabari Bird has scored in double figures in every game.
"They've got a nice infusion of youthfulness in those two freshmen and veteran players," Fisher said. "... They're going to run like crazy. They score points in bunches."
Fisher's offense got a spark from some lineup changes Monday following a listless 49-43 home loss to Arkansas Little-Rock on Saturday.
Senior Winston Shepard went scoreless in that defeat, then came off the bench for the first time since 2013 and responded with 16 points. Highly touted freshman Zylan Cheatham had nine points and eight rebounds in his first start, and junior Dakarai Allen scored in double figures for the fourth time in five games in his third career start.
Freshman Jeremy Hemsley leads the team with 13.6 points and 3.2 assists per game.
The Aztecs lead the all-time series 5-4 and won the last two meetings, most recently in 2011.