Just two weeks ago the notion of the Cal basketball going to Arizona and extracting a victory — or two? — seemed beyond far-fetched.
That’s the Bears’ assignment this week, with games Thursday at Arizona State and Saturday at Arizona.
Cal hasn’t won on the road against either program since beating ASU in Tempe four years ago. Arizona has won six in a row at McKale Center against Cal and 22 of 24 meetings in Tucson over the past quarter-century.
So why might this week be different?
Simply put, because everything is different.
The biggest change amid the COVID-19 pandemic is that fans are not part of the equation at Pac-12 games.
Has that evened the playing field for visiting teams? Perhaps. Road teams were 6-4 in Pac-12 play this past week, including 6-1 on Thursday and Saturday. Two weeks before that, visitors won seven of 11 games.
The change is especially significant at Arizona, which has led the conference in attendance for 34 consecutive seasons. Teams get to play the Wildcats at McKale this season without 14,000 fans screaming at them — and at the game officials.
Arizona is 7-2 at McKale this season, more than respectable but not close to the overwhelming dominance the Wildcats enjoyed in the building just a few years ago. From 2014 through ’18, UA was 82-3 at home.
ASU has never enjoyed a home-court advantage anywhere near what Arizona has cultivated since Lute Olson arrived on campus nearly 40 years ago.
But the Sun Devils — picked second in the preseason Pac-12 media poll — have been wretched at home: 1-5, without a victory since beating Houston Baptist way back on Nov. 29.
ASU (4-7, 1-4 Pac-12) has lost five in a row overall, falling far short of expectations. The Sun Devils have been plagued by a range of issues, including two Pac-12 games that were postponed because of COVID issues within their program and another put off because Utah had virus concerns.
Four of their top players have been forced to the sidelines for different reasons:
— Senior point guard Remy Martin (16.7 points, 4.3 assists) missed home games against UCLA and USC while attending a family funeral
— Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. (15.4 points) sat out two games due to contact tracing
— Acclaimed freshman forward Marcus Bagley (12.8 points, 6.9 rebounds) was sidelined for three games early with a lower-leg injury
— Sophomore forward Jalen Graham (6.1 points) sat out three Pac-12 games with mononucleosis
All of this would seem to at least provide a small window of opportunity for Cal, despite its 3-26 road record since the start of the 2018-19 season.
The Bears are healthier than they’ve been all season and they won their most recent Pac-12 road game, 72-63 at Utah two weekends ago.
We’ll see if they can translate that to something positive in the Arizona desert.
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo