When it became painfully clear the UCLA Bruins weren't going to be doing anything of note this season, the California Golden Bears catapulted to the top of the Pac-12 race. They had the experience, the coaching, a solid halfcourt offense and defense, and some talented young players who executed things right.
But they were overwhelmed out of conference, they lost their starting center to academic issues, they had some tough losses to Oregon State and Washington State, then struggled down the stretch when they could only beat Colorado or Stanford in one of their four final meetings. Despite having the best overall RPI, Cal couldn't win the Pac-12 regular season title or the Pac-12 tournament title, and considering how down the conference was, that was a pretty crucial blow. It ended up bouncing them all the way back to the at-large bubble as one of the last teams in the Dance.
So all that's left is the tournament (click here to fill out a bracket), and that's where Cal has to come up big to feel their season is a success. One win almost feels mandatory to prove that the Bears were deserving of even being part of this mix to begin with, the only at-large entrants from a conference that proved nothing during the regular season. Luckily, Cal does faces a team they do have the potential to beat in the First Four in South Florida.
In terms of bad matchups, the Bears really struggle with athletic teams that can crowd and attack the paint efficiently or speedy teams that can get dribble penetration and really overwhelm Cal with their fast-pace. South Florida does definitely have athleticism and uses it to rigorously defend the paint, but they don't go fast at all, which does feed well into Cal's overall strategy of slowing the game down and minimizing possessions.
Obviously, the biggest issue is Cal's offense is probably not as strong as their defense, but South Florida's offense is their definite Achilles heel, and it showed in the Big East tournament in their untimely demise to Notre Dame. South Florida's defense is the strongest element in all the game.
Justin Cobbs (6'2", 195 lbs) vs. Anthony Collins (6'1", 175 lbs): Cobbs and Collins are both very efficient shooters. Collins seems to be the primary ball-handler for South Florida, racking up the assists and steals, but his hideous turnover rate seems to offset all of that. Cobbs's offensive efficiency is matched by a low turnover rate, and his offensive rating is much, much higher.
Jorge Gutierrez (6'3", 195 lbs) vs. Hugh Robertson (6'6", 202 lbs): Gutierrez struggles with speedy guards, but faced with guys his size who he can stay in front of, he probably regains the advantage. Robertson isn't a good outside shooter, so Gutierrez might try to keep him there and force him from punishing the Bears in the paint.
Allen Crabbe (6'6", 205 lbs) vs. Victor Rudd (6'7", 207 lbs): Rudd is not an efficient scorer, so Crabbe must make sure Rudd doesn't go off. Crabbe likewise must find his buckets, as he's Cal's strongest offensive option and has to take advantage of his opportunities to stretch the floor by nailing three pointers.
Harper Kamp (6'8", 245 lbs) vs. Ron Anderson (6'8", 255 lbs): Kamp is probably drawing the assignment, and he's going to have stay out of foul trouble. Anderson does a good job drawing contact and getting to the line, so Kamp being out could force Cal to more zone alignments on defense.
David Kravish (6'9", 210 lbs) vs. Augustus Gilchrist (6'10", 245 lbs): Gilchrist probably has a size advantage (which could mean Robert Thurman might have to play more here), but he's not an efficient offensive center shooting only 40%. It also should be okay for Kravish, who generally gets his offense through his set jumper.
Cal seems to enjoy decent advantages at every position, but South Florida does have two advantages.
They pack the paint. Colorado used their length to disrupt Cal's offense and push them under 60 points in each matchup. You can imagine something similar happening here. It'll be up to the Bears to play up-tempo at every available opportunity.
They have a deeper team. Cal's team you see above? That's almost it. You have Brandon Smith coming off the bench, who is among the worst backup point guards in the country. Thurman provides decent punch as the center, sitting under the basket and flushing down hammers, but that's about as far as Cal goes. Meanwhile South Florida can get production from Jawanza Poland and Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, even Blake Nash and Shaun Noriega. None of them are offensively efficient, but they can throw bodies at the Cal starting five and wear them down throughout the game with that ugly defense that helped them win 20 games, including shutting down teams like Louisville and Cincinnati.
Cal is the favorite in this matchup, and they do stand a good chance at winning, but it all depends on whether California can overcome their limitations and operate at full efficiency with the squad they have. Mike Montgomery has gotten as much as he can out of the Golden Bears, and he'll need just a little more to get them to the second round.
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