What's the best way to find out about your opposition? Ask them.
As UCLA gets ready to play Cal tonight, we went over to our friends at California Golden Blogs to get the low down on the Bears. One thing is abundantly clear -- like UCLA, Cal has a tendency to no show for games, or halves, or who knows what so we have no idea what we're getting from either team tonight.
1. UCLA beat Cal pretty handily when they met in the first Pac-12 game of the season. Are the Bears better or worse than they were on January 3?
NorcalNick: The easy answer is to say better, because the Cal team that lost to UCLA certainly wouldn't have beaten Oregon or Arizona. That said, a main issue for Cal this year has been an inconsistency of effort and execution, so it wouldn't exactly be a big surprise if Cal were to struggle on Thursday. There's a reason that this team has traded wins and losses all season in the Pac-12.
LEastCoastBears: Definitely better. Bears got slightly healthier with Brandon Smith back, but more importantly, freshman Tyrone Wallace got tons of much needed experience during the stretch when Smith was out due to concussion.
atomsareenough: Well, beating 2 good teams in Oregon and Arizona makes me feel better about the team, for sure. I think Cal has been very inconsistent. Depth has, as ever, been a serious issue for us. We're probably not as good as our best day, but we're not as bad as some of our bad days either. Hopefully the past week or so is an indication that the guys are figuring it out and turning a corner. If Alan Crabbe can consistently play with the focus and aggressiveness he showed in Arizona, and if we can defend as well as we've shown we can in recent games, then we should be able to beat anyone in the conference.
2. Cal is on the bubble right now, but they have a home-heavy schedule coming down the stretch. Do you think they get into the NCAA Tournament?
NorcalNick: Probably not. If Cal can really get hot down the stretch I think there's enough juice left on the schedule to bolster the resume. But is that realistic? Like I mentioned above, the Bears have been trading wins and losses throughout conference play, so it seems a bit hopeful to expect a winning streak now.
Plus, even if Cal does go on that winning streak, they will likely need some wins in the Pac-12 tournament, where Mike Montgomery has historically struggled. And then we're left playing the bubble game, hoping that favorites win conference tournaments and so on. It all seems like a little much to ask.
LEastCoastBears: As much as I would love to say yes, the odds are still stacked against the Bears. With the results from these past two weekends, it is a lot more plausible now. The scenario is sort of favorable with all the home games, so the opportunity is there. Ask me about this after the UCLA game.
atomsareenough: Definitely maybe. Obviously, this stretch is crucial. If the tourney selection were today, we'd be out. Beating UCLA and Colorado would go a long way, though, and if we win at least more 6 games between now and the end of the Pac-12 tourney, I like our chances. If not, then we're probably an NIT team.
3. The Bears are 2-9 vs. the RPI top 100. Do you have concerns about whether Cal can hang with decent teams or do you think they are coming around, as evidenced by their win over Arizona last week?
NorcalNick: It's a concern. It was 0-8 prior to two weeks ago, and the sense is that without Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp, this team had to re-learn the type of effort and execution it takes to beat good teams. In that regard, two recent wins over top 25 caliber opponents is extremely encouraging.
UCLA will be another test. Was the win over Oregon a function of Dominic Artis' injury and home court advantage? Was the Arizona game a one-off mirage? If they weren't flukes, then Cal should really beat UCLA at home.
LEastCoastBears: Can I just focus on the 2-1 in the last two week part? With home games still against UCLA, Colorado, and Furd. Bears has the opportunity to make this record look much better comes Selection Sunday. The Arizona win was rather miraculous, but if the Bears can maintain the same intensity and consistency as what they showed against a flawed Oregon the week before, they should be favored in pretty much all the remaining games on the schedule.
atomsareenough: Are they coming around? The jury's out. Thursday's game will be an important data point. I think the pieces are there to be competitive at least.
4. Cal is 153rd in the country in scoring. What do they have to do to put up points against UCLA besides hope Allen Crabbe goes off again (which is far too likely for my taste)?
NorcalNick: Cal's offense tends to come down to Justin Cobbs. Allen Crabbe is a known quantity, and although he occasionally has rough shooting games and occasionally blows up, you tend to know what you're getting from him.
Which is why Cobbs is key. When he's on, he's getting past his defender, hitting 3s, and making his teammates look better by driving and dishing. When he's off, he's making poor decisions with the ball, doesn't seem to trust his shot, and turns it over too often. If UCLA can slow him down, it's pretty unlikely that Allen Crabbe can outscore a potent Bruin offense by himself.
LEastCoastBears: In addition to Cobbs, Wallace's play is also important. Wallace has handled the ball more often now to allow Cobbs to play off the ball at times. While this may not work better than when Cobbs has the ball, it allows the Bears to give a different look to the opponents.
atomsareenough: If Crabbe and Cobbs are both on, that could well be enough. If only one of them is on, other guys will have to step up and make shots. If neither are on, we probably lose.
5. Can Cal exploit UCLA's rebounding issues?
NorcalNick: Probably not. Cal has never been a great offensive rebounding team under Monty. Richard Solomon is decently active on the offensive glass, but other than that I wouldn't expect much. The key for Cal tends to be defensive rebounding. It's always been a focal point for Monty, and Solomon, David Kravish and Allen Crabbe are all pretty solid on the defensive glass, but active teams with a strong inside prescence have exploited Cal's lack of bulk.
I don't think that UCLA can exploit that weakness, but conversely I don't think Cal can exploit UCLA's rebounding weakness. I'm guessing the game gets decided by other factors.
LEastCoastBears: Bears has had some really good offensive rebounding games but they coincide when the Bears can't buy a bucket to save their lives (thus a ton of opportunities). I wouldn't be surprised if Robert Thurman has a big game on Thursday, though.
atomsareenough: It depends on how motivated Richard Solomon is. Crabbe is a good rebounder for a guard, and so is Wallace, but I think Solomon is the x-factor here.
6. What are the Bears' strengths (besides Crabbe)?
NorcalNick: When Cal is playing well - and as I mentioned above, consistency of effort has been perhaps the biggest issue this season - they really can play solid, fundamental defense. Cobbs, Crabbe and Tyrone Wallace are all quick perimeter defenders. Richard Solomon is really long and plenty athletic. When they are playing confidently, they have a ton of length that allows them to disrupt passing lanes, and Monty is willing to throw out some defensive wrinkles if necessary.
Perhaps most importantly, the defensive effort has been generally improving with time. UCLA will be Cal's first rematch in conference play, and as such will be a great measuring stick for how much Cal's defense has truly improved since giving up 1.13 points per possession to UCLA back in early January - Cal's worst defensive performance in conference play.
LEastCoastBears: Coach Mike Montgomery. He is one of the better in game strategian in the game. With the Bears getting healthier to actually have enough people for competitive practices, Monty potentially has had the team practice more stuff that they could try in games.
atomsareenough: Allen Cra... oh, besides Crabbe. Hmmm. Apparently our ability to switch to a zone is a strength; who knew? I think we're decent at defensive rebounding, or at least not allowing too many second-chance points. Also, the last few games we've had Brandon Smith back, who had been out with a concussion. In addition to providing guard depth, Smith can capably run the point, which takes pressure off Justin Cobbs and allows him to be more of a scoring option, which the team desperately needs to have beyond Crabbe. Really, there isn't a lot that stands out though about this team. When they are focused on the defensive end and move the ball well on offense, they tend to win. When they are sloppy and lackadaisical, they lose.
7. What are the Bears' weaknesses?
NorcalNick: As oddly as it sounds for a team that includes Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe . . . shooting. Cal went through a massive slump from behind the arc early in conference play, and they don't really have a consistent post offense to counter with when shots aren't falling. In conference play Cal is 9th in eFG%, which is just shocking. When Allen Crabbe can't get shots off, Cal's offense can struggle.
LEastCoastBears: Lack of depth. If the starters, particularly Crabbe, is struggling, there is no help from the bench scoring-wise. Of course, Thurman can prove me wrong and go off against UCLA.
atomsareenough: For some reason we keep missing close-range shots from about 6 feet out. Also, our perimeter defense is pretty bad, so if your guys can capitalize on the open looks they will probably get, that will be bad news for us.
8. What is the number one thing UCLA has to do to beat Cal?
NorcalNick: On ball pressure and off ball pressure. Don't let Cal get comfortable, don't let Cal run their basic offensive sets without a fight. Don't give Justin Cobbs space to operate and don't let Allen Crabbe get off uncontested looks. When Cal has played really poorly (against Wisconsin and Washington especially) their opponent played constant, consistently aggressive defense that resulted in a flurry of turnovers and poor decisions because Cal didn't have the time or space to comfortably run their offense.
Cal has lost games in other ways (inconsistent defensive intensity, poor shooting, etc.) but when they really get handled that tends to be a primary factor.
LEastCoastBears: What Nick says. As good as Cobbs and Wallace can be, they can be pressured into making a lot of turnovers.
atomsareenough: I don't know, UCLA seems to find a way to beat Cal more often than it should. The ball will either bounce straight to Michael Roll at the end of regulation, or Josh Shipp will make an illegal shot from behind the backboard, or something else equally maddening and UCLA-ish.