Minutes after Cal’s eight-point loss at USC Wednesday night, coach Mike Montgomery made an important point about the remaining games on his team’s conference schedule. “The interesting thing about it is, the people that SC lost to, we have not played,” he said. “So there’s a little bit of a concern there.”
It’s easy to see why Montgomery, while trying to process his team’s poor effort and the unfavorable result it brought about, might not have been so confident about his team’s chances of winning games against a tough remaining Pac-12 slate.
The Bears had just played their worst game of the season against one of the two worst teams in the conference. They didn’t shoot well. They defended poorly. Most worrisome, they didn’t have the proper mindset. “Our focus was very, very poor. There’s no excuse for that,” he said.
Any coach would have been concerned with his team following a performance like Cal’s Wednesday night. But if the Bears are focused and engaged, and if they can avoid the sort of sluggishness evident against the Trojans, they should be just fine over the remainder of the conference season."
Despite the loss, Cal has emerged as the No. 1 challenger to top-ranked Arizona in the Pac-12. After suffering four losses in non-conference play, the latest a 14-point defeat at Creighton on December 22, the Bears have won five of their first six conference matchups, including a sweep of a tough road swing that included rival Stanford, then-No. 17 Oregon and Oregon State.
The Bears, who sit one game behind the Wildcats in the conference standings, begin a critical stretch on Sunday, when they travel to third-place UCLA, then host the Arizona schools next week.
“Three really tough games in a row here coming up,” Montgomery told SI.com. “Probably not real confident coming off that USC game, but when we’re good, we’ve been good.”
The key to Cal’s hot start in conference play has been its balanced offensive attack, which ranks first in the Pac-12 in points scored per possession, second in three-point and effective field goal percentage and third in two-point field goal percentage.
Five players – seniors Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon, sophomore Tyrone Wallace, and freshmen Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews – are using at least 20 percent of available possessions when they’re on the floor, according to Kenpom.com, compared to just three last season, when Montgomery says his team had a tendency to rely too much on second-round NBA Draft pick Allen Crabbe.
“I think there were times last year when we all stood around and watched Allen try and get open and shoot the ball, like everything was for him,” Montgomery said. “I think we’ve had better distribution this year, and that’s helped us.”
The main reason Cal has been more balanced this season is simple: the four starters it returned from 2012-13 have gotten better.
Most of Wallace’s offensive statistics have jumped – from field goal percentage (34.2 to 46.5) to offensive rating (86.9 to 111.0) to assist rate (17.5 to 20.0) – and Montgomery believes his improved strength has turned Wallace into a better defender.
“He’s been good getting to the basket and he’s been a real key for us both defensively and offensively in most of our games,” Montgomery said of Wallace.
The two freshmen, Bird and Mathews, have made an already capable offensive attack even more difficult to guard. While Bird, the No. 32-ranked recruit in the country according to Rivals, has played limited minutes since returning from an ankle injury that kept him out of four games, Mathews has provided a huge, if inconsistent, boost to Cal’s offense during Pac-12 play.
He scored 32 points on 10-of-14 shooting in the Bears’ win at Matthew Knight Arena on January 9 and had 18 Wednesday against the Trojans. Mathews has yet to figure out how to unleash his scoring ability on a regular basis; he scored a combined 14 points in the three games between those two double-digit efforts.
Still, Montgomery can’t help but be excited about his two freshmen’s shot-making potential.
“We knew [Jordan Mathews] could score the ball,” Montgomery said. “No way would we ever anticipate him having 32 on the road in a conference game, but he did. We obviously can’t expect that every night, but he is a guy that can shoot the ball.
Said Montgomery of Bird, “Jabari was really coming into his own, and then he sprained his ankle at Creighton and he’s been out for three and a half weeks. It was a critical time for him to miss because we made some adjustments in our offense and we continued to improve defensively and he’s kind of behind, so it’s frustrating for him, trying to catch up.”
No discussion of the Bears backcourt can neglect how well Cobbs, a second-team All-Pac 12 selection in 2013, has played. With Crabbe leaving in the offseason, Cobbs became the Bears’ top scoring option, but he’s made finding a balance between scoring and distributing a point of emphasis. Manufacturing his own buckets is just part of the senior’s role this season.
The other parts are more important, in his estimation.
“I’m finding a balance,” said Cobbs, who has posted an assist rate (36.2) that ranks in the nation’s top 20 while using more possessions (24.6 to 25.5) and scoring more points (15.1 per game to 15.3) than he did last season. “We have a lot of guys that can score – a lot of guys that have made improvements. I just think we have more balance this year than we did last year.”
Cal may be best known for its perimeter firepower, but forwards Richard Solomon and David Kravish have done a good job anchoring a thin Bears’ frontcourt – Wednesday night’s loss at USC notwithstanding.
One of only two major conference players (Kentucky’s Julius Randle is the other) averaging a double-double this season, Solomon has cleaned the glass more effectively than anyone else in the Pac-12 during conference play (10.7 per game) and Cobbs has been impressed with Kravish’s ability to knock down shots and rebound.
Solomon is also one of the league’s best interior defenders, as evidenced by the fact the Bears was gutted for 1.14 points per possession in the two games they played this season without the senior big man, compared to their season average of 0.976.
“David has helped us tremendously on the boards and knocking down shots,” Cobbs said of Kravish (11.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg). “Richard is doing a great job boarding the ball. He’s made a big jump. I’m just happy to see his improvement, see what he keeps doing for us going forward.”
Two Pac-12 teams that shone during the first two months of the season, Oregon and Colorado, have slipped during conference play. Cal has seized the opportunity and looks poised to at least apply some heat on Arizona in the league championship race. Whether it can could hinge on its performance over the next week.
If the Bears can win at UCLA Sunday, they would create some separation between themselves, Arizona, and the rest of the league. The Bears will get a shot at the seemingly indomitable Wildcats, who throttled Colorado Thursday night, on February 1 at Haas Pavilion. That game could be the biggest obstacle standing between 19-0 Arizona and 31-0, No. 1-overall NCAA Tournament seed Arizona. But as Montgomery readily concedes, beating the Wildcats won’t be easy.
“They’re very good,” he said. “One would expect them to win the majority of their games – maybe have a chance to go undefeated in the league.”
Before thinking about its matchup with Arizona, Cal needs to get back to its winning ways Sunday at Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins have lost just once there this season, to Arizona, and are coming off a decisive, 17-point win over Stanford. Cal has proven it can win conference road games, but if they play the way they did Wednesday night, the Bears have virtually no shot.
If they play the way Cobbs knows they’re capable of, the Bears have every reason to believe they can win.
“If we just keep working hard on defense and playing the way we have in the past, I think we’ll be fine,” he said.
This team is better than the one Montgomery coached to 21-12 record and second-place finish in the Pac-12 last season. “Probably,” Montgomery said when offered that statement.