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WSU vs. Cal basketball preview: Cougs, Bears look to end losing streaks

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WSU looks for its fourth Pac-12 win of the season when it hosts Cal on Thursday (8 p.m., Pac-12 Network).

Jordan Mathews has been a lone bright spot for Cal in Pac-12 play.
Jordan Mathews has been a lone bright spot for Cal in Pac-12 play.
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

When Cal played Washington State less than a month ago, the Golden Bears were coming off a win over Washington and looked good enough to make a run for at least the NIT. That game against the Cougars started a tailspin that has Cal struggling to stay above .500 after a 10-1 start.

Cal's Pac-12 efficiency numbers are brutal. The Bears have featured the worst offense in Pac-12 play, scoring just 87 points per 100 possessions. And the defense, which was quite good during the non-league slate, hasn't much helped, allowing 108 points per 100 possessions. That's a negative-21 efficiency margin against Pac-12 competition, worse than what Washington State finished with last season when it won just three conference games.

On offense, Cal's soft interior presence takes the lion's share of the blame. The Bears are hitting on a league-worst 41 percent of their 2-point shots. The main reason for that is simple - they don't take many easy shots. Cal features the 28th-lowest percentage of field goal attempts at the rim in the country.

Rare ventures to the rim have meant rare trips to the free throw line - Cal is 11th in the league in free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt).

The rest of the conference peripherals are ugly as well. The Bears are last in effective field goal percentage (42.9), eighth in turnover percentage (18.9), 11th in offensive rebound percentage (25.6), ninth in 3-point percentage (32.4), and 10th in free throw percentage (67.0).

Jordan Mathews is the only key player that has performed well in league play for the Bears. He's been dangerous from the outside, hitting half of his 3s, while Cal's other top players have struggled.

Point guard Tyrone Wallace is one of the most prolific players in terms of usage in the league, and his 79.5 offensive rating is killing Cal right now. He's been unable to hit shots against Pac-12 competition, making just 35 percent of 2s and a putrid two of 21 3s.

The return of sophomore Jabari Bird was supposed to help, but in four games since coming back he's hit just four of 20 field goal attempts (one of 11 on 2s) and has played a limited role on offense.

The massive offensive struggles have put the onus on Cal's defense to stay competitive, and that has failed. The Bears have been unable to force turnovers (10th-worst turnover percentage) and provide very little resistance inside (11th-worst block percentage).

Opponents have also been hot from 3, knocking down 39 percent. To Cal's credit, it's been the best team at preventing 3-point attempts in Pac-12 play.

But that means more shots inside, and Cal opponents are feasting, hitting 60 percent of attempts at the rim (all competition). When looking at that, it should come as no surprise that Jordan Railey had a career game for WSU when these two teams met in Berkeley.

It would be worthwhile for WSU to work the ball inside again. Another big game from Railey is certainly no guarantee, but this is an excellent match-up for the 7-foot senior. This could also be a nice opportunity for a bounce-back game from Josh Hawkinson, who has seen his production dip during the Cougs' 3-game losing streak.

Finally, KenPom's prediction is noteworthy here because it is likely to be the last time WSU is favored all season. The laptop projects the Cougs to win 61 percent of the theoretical battles. The score is expected to be close, as it was 25 days ago.

So will it be the Cougs or Cal that emerge from recent struggles? Or will it just be a pair of bad basketball teams playing some bad basketball with the obligation of a winner being the primary reason for interest? Tune in to find out!

All stats from KenPom.com and hoop-math.com.