Cal men’s basketball had a successful finish to its nonconference slate, but coming off of a 10-day break and now entering Pac-12 play for the rest of the year, an important question remained: How would the team fare in conference play?
Sunday night’s matchup against Arizona State was the Bears’ first big Pac-12 test, and the early returns were strong as Cal put together perhaps its best performance of the season in a strong 74-50 victory over the Sun Devils.
It’s been five years since Cal has been competitive in Pac-12 play. It’s put together decent nonconference stretches before, but the wheels have always seemed to fall off as the calendar turned toward conference matches.
The Bears have been at the bottom of the Pac-12 for three of the past four seasons, and last year was no exception: The Bears were beat up by the rest of the conference and finished in the basement once again with a 3-17 record.
It’s been a tough stretch for Cal men’s basketball, and entering the season, there was little hope for things to be any different. The Bears lost their leading scorer Matt Bradley to the transfer portal and were predicted to finish last in the conference once again in the preseason media poll.
Sunday night served as a coming out party for the newest iteration of Cal men’s basketball, and though it’s still early, the blue and gold proved that this year may be different with a resounding win.
The victory extends the Bears’ winning streak to five games and their home winning streak to nine games. They’ve made Haas Pavilion a difficult place for opposing teams thus far, something they’ll need to continue if they hope to string together more wins.
The Bears have put together their best start to the season since 2016-17 and notched their first victory over the Sun Devils since 2016-17. Cal has been at the mercy of most of the Pac-12 for the past four years, and Arizona State was no exception, as the Sun Devils had won seven straight against the Bears entering Sunday.
The few Pac-12 victories Cal has secured have always been close, so this blowout win was a surprise and the team’s largest margin of victory over a Pac-12 opponent again since 2016-17 –– the last year the Bears were competitive in conference.
The Bears put together a well-rounded performance on both ends of the floor to secure the wire-to-wire victory. Cal went a scorching hot 9-19 from three, outrebounded the Sun Devils 38-32 and put together a strong 17-9 assist to turnover ratio.
The blue and gold came out flying in the first half to open up a 41-23 lead at the break. The Bears had a more modest 33-27 scoring edge in the second half, often trading baskets with their opponent, but with a comfortable lead opened up, they were content to do so and never let Arizona State mount a run.
The Sun Devils struggled offensively, including a dreadful 3-17 performance from beyond the 3-point line. It was an off night to be sure, but the Bears deserve credit for locking down defensively. Arizona State was led in scoring by a strong 17-point night from sophomore guard DJ Horne, but no other player could reach double figures.
The Bears, in contrast, relied on balanced scoring across the board to lead them to victory. Jordan Shepherd led the Bears in scoring with 16 points, but two other teammates joined him in double figures. Andre Kelly contributed an efficient 13 points on 6-8 shooting, and Grant Anticevich notched a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double.
Cal had six players in total who scored seven points or more and eight who splashed at least one 3-pointer. It’s a far cry from the offense the team has run the past few seasons where one star player has carried the load.
Last year it was Bradley who was the focus point of the Bears’ offensive output, frequently putting together 20-point performances to lead the team. The supporting cast seemed to struggle, however, often deferring to the star scorer. Teams also were easily able to key in on Bradley, and Cal couldn’t get much going when he was locked down defensively.
Bradley was a great player, and the Bears aren’t necessarily better in his absence — but they have been able to run a different, more-balanced offense, and this year it has led to more success.
“We know it’s not one guy who’s going to do it all for us,” Kelly said. “We do a good job of depending on each other, and if one guy’s not having his best night, we have a deep team so a lot of people can step up and make plays. It’s a nice thing to have.”
Cal’s victory over Arizona State continues a stretch of the Bears relying on balanced scoring and balanced basketball to play the best they’ve had since 2016. This was also the last time that the Bears, led by current NBA All-Star Jaylen Brown and three other future NBA players, qualified for the NCAA March Madness tournament.
Cal isn’t close to being a tournament team quite yet, but it also seems to be better than the team that’s frequently finished last in the conference in the years since its last appearance. For the first time in a long time, the Bears seem to have their confidence back.
“We always believe. Since the beginning of the season, there was never any doubt in our mind of what we were capable of,” Shepherd said. “We think we’re capable of being a top four team in this league.”
The Bears will have those lofty goals tested soon, as they next face the two best teams in the Pac-12: No. 5 USC and No. 7 UCLA. The Bears likely aren’t on the level of those teams just yet, but with Sunday’s impressive win over the Sun Devils, Cal has shown that it may be on its way there.