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Cal men's basketball hopes to play spoiler against No. 5 Arizona

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Sports Editor

MARCH 05, 2015

With a disappointing season coming to an end, there isn’t all that much for the Cal men’s basketball team (17-12, 7-9 Pac-12) to prove. But on Thursday night at McKale Center, the Bears have the chance to play spoiler to No. 5 Arizona’s hopes of winning its second consecutive outright Pac-12 regular season title.

And Cal wants to.

“They’re a really good team — that would definitely be a huge win for us,” said junior point guard Tyrone Wallace. “I feel like we can play with those guys, so I don’t think it’s anything that’s impossible. … At the end of the day, the chips fall with they do.”

The Wildcats have been phenomenal at home this season, owning the nation’s longest home winning streak — 36 games — and holding the Pac-12 best home winning percentage, 92.9 percent, spanning more than the last four seasons. But Cal was actually the last team to beat Arizona at home, on Feb. 10, 2013, when the Bears eked out a 77-69 victory. Only two current Cal players — senior David Kravish and Wallace — played on that game.

The Bears also will have a tough time of it because the Wildcats are better in just about every statistical category. Arizona scores an average of about nine points per game more than Cal does, and the Wildcats allow about eight fewer points per game than the Bears’ defense does. Across the board, Cal really only comes out on top with more blocks per game — due in large part to Kravish, the all-time program leader in blocks— its three-point field goal percentage and fouls per game.

Arizona’s likely starting five — sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, junior forward Brandon Ashley, junior center Kaleb Tarczewski, senior guard T.J. McConnell and freshman forward Kaleb Johnson — is an intimidating one, and the Bears will have their work cut out for them. Johnson leads the team with an average of 14.1 points per game, and Ashley and Hollis-Jefferson are close behind with 11.2 and 11.1 points per game, respectively.

McConnell has established himself as one of the best point guards in the game, with a team-leading 173 assists. His average of six assists per game puts him 14th in the national ranks, and he is in the Pac-12’s top three in assists per game and steals per game.

For the Bears, Wallace’s play will be key. When asked if he’s looking forward to play against McConnell, Wallace said, “Sure,” then added that he is more just looking forward to playing against the Wildcats and the challenge this opportunity presents.

“We don’t really change our game plan that much. We’ll adjust,” Wallace said of facing Arizona’s lineup. ‘We’re focused on what we do as a team.”

Wallace leads the Bears with 17 points per game, and in his first season as Cal’s point guard, he has 3.8 assists per game and 38 steals. Sophomore guard Jordan Mathews trails Wallace in points per game with 14.2 and has a team-high free-throw percentage on a team that has been struggling lately from the charity stripe.

But perhaps one of the bigger keys for the Bears will be the play of sophomore guard Jabari Bird, who was a few games back from an injury the last time the two teams met. Head coach Cuonzo Martin thinks Bird is playing the best he’s playing all year — playing more aggressively, being quicker with his movements and putting the ball on the floor.

“He’s more active and playing with a higher level of confidence,” Martin said.

Martin thinks the team started playing better after the 73-50 loss the Bears suffered at the hands of the Wildcats on Jan. 24 and is ready to put out his lineup to see what it can do.

“Our goal is to win the game,” Martin said. “Right now, we’ve got to get prepared to do that.”

Shannon Carroll covers men’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @scarroll43.

MARCH 05, 2015

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