Another home game, another win for the no.11 Runnin' Utes. So was the case on Thursday as the Utes took Stanford's best shot and came away with an impressive 75-59 victory. The victory ran Utah's home winning streak to 16 games, and with an average victory margin of 24 points at the Huntsman Center this year, the Utes don't appear to be slowing down. The other team from the Bay area, the Cal Bears, are the next challenger to see if they can do what no other team has been able to do, beat the Utes in Salt Lake City.
The Bears come in with a 16-9 record overall, 5-2 on the road. The Bears started the season out strong, sprinting out to a 10-1 record before running into no. 6 Wisconsin three days before Christmas. Since then, the Bears are 6-8, having lost six in a row at one point. Recently Cal has recovered from their downward spiral however, reeling off five straight wins in the last two and a half weeks. Cal doesn't hold any wins against a currently ranked team, though early in the season they did beat Syracuse 73-59 at Madison Square Garden, which is always tough to do. In Pac-12 play their best victory comes against an ever improving UCLA team just a week ago, though they have mostly been beating up on the Pac-12 bottom feeders the last five games.
The Bears are led in scoring by 6-5 junior guard Tyrone Wallace. The exciting guard has been busy this year averaging 17.4 points per game, 7.8 rebounds per game to go along with 3.7 assists per game. Wallace can do everything on the court, from throwing down thundering dunks to hitting game winning three pointers, as he did against USC on February 5th. When Wallace is given a little bit of space to work with, he can be a fun player to watch. At the other guard position is 6-3 sophomore Jordan Matthews. The sharpshooter is averaging 15.1 points per game shooting 45.7 percent from deep. Matthews three-point percentage is actually ever so slightly higher than his overall shooting percentage of 45.5 percent He has been critical in Cal's recent resurgence and has been lights out shooting the ball, hitting four threes in Cal's win over Colorado on Thursday.
Down low 6-10 David Kravish mans the post. The senior averages 10.8 points per game 6.8 rebounds per game and 1.4 blocks per game. The Bears also have 7-1 freshman Kingsley Okoroh to team up with Kravish at times. Though Okoroh is raw, he is brimming with potential and can make a difference on defense with his length and athleticism.
Maybe the most important player for the Cal Bears in Sunday's game will be sophomore guard Jabari Bird. The 6-6 guard was a touted prospect coming out of high school with NBA aspirations. He had a solid freshman season last year, but has struggled this season, fracturing his foot and struggling finding niche in the Cal offense. Bird played well to start the year, scoring sixteen in their win over Syracuse, but was then forced to sit ten games through the middle of the season to allow his foot to heal. Since his return, Bird has been inconsistent, scoring sixteen in their win over UCLA and then disappearing against Colorado the next game, scoring only three. If the Cal is to have any chance of upsetting the Utes, Bird will need to have a big game.
The Utes hold a few advantages in this game. Utah has more depth, with ten players averaging more than fifteen minutes a game. If someone like Jakob Poeltl gets into foul trouble, as he has several times this season, the Utes have Dallin Bachynski who can step in and adequately fill Poeltl's roll. If Cal loses Kravish to foul trouble as they almost did against Colorado on Thursday, the Bears experience a steep drop off. The same can be said for the guard and wing positions where Cal is thing behind Wallace and Matthews and the Utes have Dakari Tucker, Brekkot Chapman, Isaiah Wright and Kenneth Ogbe to provide productive minutes for the Utes.
One of the reasons for Cal's resurgence recently is improved shooting. Unfortunately for the Bears, they are going to be facing Utah which ranks seventh in the nation in shooting percentage. Even more they are going to playing the Utes in the Huntsman Center where their shooting 52.4 percent and 45 percent from three. Not only are the Utes better shooters than the Bears, Utah holds almost every statistical advantage coming into this game, making it a tall order for the Bears to come in and pull an upset.
The Bears will need several big performances to pull of a stunner in the Huntsman Center. Jordan Matthews will need to shoot the lights out and Jabari Bird will need to have a big game to draw attention away from Tyrone Wallace. If the three of them can gel together and have big games AND if Kravish can stay out of trouble down low against Poeltl and Bachynski, the Cal Bears have a shot. Although going against Utah's 10th rated scoring defense which allows opponents only 35.7% shooting, this scenario seems unlikely to play out. Utah should be able to smother Cal defensively and continue their efficiency on offense against Cal's 139th ranked defense. The Huntsman Center will be rocking and the Utes will keep rolling on Sunday afternoon.
The game will be broadcast on ESPNU at 6:30 pm MT. Roxy Bernstein and Corey Williams have the call for the game.