The Washington State Cougars seek a second-straight Pac-12 win when they head south to face the Cal Golden Bears on Thursday night (7:30, Pac-12 Network). The Cougs sit at 1-1 in conference play after taking down UCLA last weekend, while Cal is 0-1 following a blowout loss to rival Stanford.
We’ll call this the “take your mind off Mike Leach leaving” portion of the day, although it will almost certainly be mentioned during the broadcast. If you are looking to follow the action, WSU basketball’s Twitter page has you covered:
Much like WSU, Cal has improved quite a bit in its first year under a new head coach. Also much like WSU, head coach Mark Fox has a lot of work to do to rebuild a program that reached the lowest of lows for a major conference school.
Fox, like WSU’s Kyle Smith, has focused on the defensive side in improving his squad. Cal’s defense isn’t great—just 184th in adjusted defensive efficiency—but it is a big step from finishing No. 286 in the same measurement just last season.
Much of that improvement has come from interior defense. Cal sits at 74th nationally in 2-point percentage allowed, after finishing 344th in 2019. That jump is anchored by 6’8, 255-pound starter Andre Kelly and 7-foot, 248-pound freshman backup Lars Thiemann. The latter is the one true shot-blocking presence on the squad, and he plays about 40 percent of the minutes in the middle.
Outside of tough 2-point defense, there’s not a lot else that Cal does well defensively. The Golden Bears don’t force many turnovers, they rebound at an average rate, and they allow a high 3-point percentage.
Still, that interior strength could give WSU trouble. The Cougs have not shot well from beyond the arc this season, and when CJ Elleby can’t get to the rim he has the tendency to struggle. If scoring inside does prove to be a challenge, the WSU offense could be limited.
When Cal has the ball, Matt Bradley is the primary focus. The 6’4 wing is a good outside shooter—he hit 47 percent from deep as a freshman before a dip to 35 percent this year—but he also finds plenty of looks on the inside and possesses the ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. Free throws are a weapon for Bradley, hitting 86 percent on the season.
Kareem South is another good outside shooter who focuses more on jumpers. Senior point guard Paris Austin turns the ball over at a high rate and rarely shoots from beyond the arc.
In the frontcourt, Kelly is the primary inside scoring option, but doesn’t tend to draw many fouls. Grant Anticevich will work the inside and shoot the 3 at an efficient rate—he’s made 17 of 33 this season.
Overall, despite having a trio of good outside shooters, Cal shoots 3s at one of the lowest frequencies in the nation. The Golden Bears also score via assists at one of the lowest frequencies in the nation. That matches two strengths of the WSU defense—chasing shooters off the 3-point line and limiting assists. Expect to see a lot of one-on-one play inside the arc for Cal in this one.
The Golden Bears turn the ball over quite a lot, but are among the best nationally at avoiding steals. So, they shoot themselves in the foot quite a bit. They also don’t rebound on the defensive end particularly well, so WSU should be able to clean up any misses.
KenPom predicts Cal to win 51 percent of time with an average score of 68-67. WSU is the better team, but the road matchup flips it in slight favor of the Golden Bears. If the Cougs are to grab the win, they’ll probably need to hit a few outside shots and make sure Cal’s shooters can’t find looks.
This should be a bit ugly, and a bit of a grind, but the Cougs are in a good position to grab their second conference win.