The Pac-12 Conference generally is considered a more competitive basketball league overall than during the past few seasons. The reasons for that aren’t necessarily the most obvious ones.
It’s not that Oregon has been a mainstay in the national top 15, or that Arizona’s trio of talented freshmen make the Wildcats the sort of team one wants to avoid in March, or even the Colorado Buffaloes’ return to NCAA Tournament contention.
For the overall strength of a league, it’s often more enlightening to look at how the bottom half lives. And the three teams picked in the bottom three spots in the league’s preseason media poll — Stanford, Washington State, and Cal — have hit the midway point of the Pac-12 calendar with a combined .500 mark in league play.
Two of those teams, Cal and Stanford, visit the 24th-ranked Buffs this weekend, beginning with a Thursday night date against the Golden Bears at the CU Events Center. After going 3-15 in the Pac-12 last year, first-year head coach Mark Fox has Cal at 4-4 heading into Thursday’s battle.
“Coach Fox, he has them ready,” CU head coach Tad Boyle said. “Competing, number one. They play hard. They believe that they can win. That’s half the battle. They’ve done a good job of shortening the game and doing whatever they have to do — whether they’re playing Oregon or Oregon State, it doesn’t matter who they’re playing — they’re trying to figure out how to keep it close and give themselves a chance at the end. They’ve been in a lot of close games. They’ve won some close games. But yeah, I think coach Fox is doing a terrific job.”
Seven of Cal’s eight Pac-12 games have been decided by 10 points or less, four of which have been decided by five points or less. The Bears have surrendered just 65.5 points per game in league games, but that has been a more of a testament to Cal’s pace of play than their standout defense, as in Pac-12 play the Bears rank seventh in overall defensive field goal percentage (.421) and eighth in defensive 3-point percentage (.349).
In contrast, the Buffs rank second in points allowed in Pac-12 play (64.0) but also rank fifth in defensive field goal percentage (.409) and sixth in defensive 3-point percentage (.335). A CU team that generally likes to push the pace anyway will be focused on speeding things up against the more methodical Bears.
“We want to get the pace going, there’s no doubt about it,” Boyle said. “I think depth is a strength of our team. We’re playing at home. We’re playing at altitude. We want to speed the game up and make it a 94-foot game. That doesn’t mean we’re going to press for 40 minutes. It just means when we get stops we’ve got to run. We’ve got to put a little pressure on them. We can’t let them just use 28 seconds of every shot clock and lengthen the game.”
The first full weekend series in February represents a chance for CU to take its game to another level, as it was during February last year when this same group of Buffs began a run of eight wins in 10 games to complete the regular season. Compiling a similar burst this year likely would separate CU from the crowded pack atop the Pac-12, and with opportunities at home beginning to run thin — after this weekend, only two home games remain — protecting the Events Center floor is paramount for the Buffs to remain in contention in the league race.
“All the home games, we’ve got to take care of,” CU junior wing D’Shawn Schwartz said. “They always say you’ve got to win the home games and split on the road. We obviously lost one home game, so we’ve got to do a little bit more than that. But we have to make sure we win all the home games.”
Cal Golden Bears at No. 24 CU Buffs
TIPOFF: Thursday, 6 p.m., CU Events Center.
BROADCAST: TV — Pac-12 Networks; Radio — KOA 850 AM and 94.1 FM.
RECORDS: Cal 10-11, 4-4 Pac-12 Conference; Colorado 17-5, 6-3.
COACHES: Cal — Mark Fox, 1st season (10-11, 296-187 overall); Colorado — Tad Boyle, 10th season (206-128, 262-194).
KEY PLAYERS: Cal — G Matt Bradley, So., 17.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, .451 field goal percentage; G Kareem South, Sr., 9.7 ppg; F Grant Anticevich, Jr., 8.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg. Colorado — G McKinley Wright, Jr., 13.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.3 apg; F Tyler Bey, Jr., 13.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg, .526 field goal percentage; G/F D’Shawn Schwartz, Jr., 10.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg; F Evan Battey, R-So., 9.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg.
WHAT TO WATCH: If it’s not a good game for CU’s defense, the Buffs are in trouble. In league games, Cal ranks last in overall field goal percentage (.392) and 11th in 3-point percentage (.282).
NOTES: CU junior guard Maddox Daniels returned to practice on Wednesday and will be available against Cal. Daniels made the first start of his career in last week’s loss at UCLA but missed the win at USC after suffering a concussion…CU has won its past four matchups against Cal and is 11-2 all-time at home against the Bears…Bey needs just five rebounds to pass Larry Vaculik and Burdette Haldorson and move into ninth-place on the Buffs’ all-time rounding list. Since going 0-for-4 on 3-pointers in the season opener, Bey has gone 10-for-15 from long range…Senior Lucas Siewert will play in his 121st game, tying former teammate Dom Collier for 13th all-time at CU…In his last nine games, reserve center Dallas Walton has gone 12-for-18 from the floor…The Buffs complete the penultimate home series of the season on Saturday against Stanford (4 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).