Madison Square Garden | New York, NY | Tip: Approx. 6:30 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN2
Vegas: Texas -5.5 | KenPom: Texas, 68-64 (67%)
The Texas Longhorns overcame a slow start at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night to knock off Iowa and advance to the title game of the 2K Classic. Cal surprised Syracuse in the other semifinal, cruising to a comfortable win over the nation’s 23rd-ranked team. That sets up tonight’s unexpected championship matchup, as new Cal coach Cuonzo Martin and his underrated Golden Bears set their sights on another ranked foe.
By the numbers
Through the first three games, Cal’s tempo stats have an interesting duality. The pace of their games are relatively quick, with an adjusted average of 70.4 possessions, up from the national average of 67.7 possessions. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that their average offensive possession is the shortest in all of D-I hoops at just 11.2 seconds, according to Ken Pomeroy. However, on the other end of the floor, they average the 14th-slowest possessions, with opponents hanging on to the ball for 21.6 seconds.
The Golden Bears have a bevy of talented three-point shooters, but don’t rely on the long ball to score. Cal’s 45.5% mark behind the arc is 29th-best in the nation, but they take less than 30% of their shots from three-point range, and score less than 30% of their points from there.
Perhaps the main reason Cal doesn’t have to rely on the three is because they have a trio of guards that can all slice up defenses with the bounce, and their entire team moves the ball incredibly well. Their team assist percentage of 67.3% is 33rd in the NCAA, and their ball movement against the zones of Syracuse and Alcorn State looked like something out of a coaching video.
Cal has also limited their mistakes through the first three games, turning it over on just 16.4% of their possessions, well below the national average of 20.1%. On the other end of the floor, they don’t force many mistakes by the opponents, either, causing miscues on just 16.9% of possessions. Instead, the Golden Bears get in your shirt on the perimeter, and help quickly when that tight defense allows dribble penetration by quick opposing guards.
Meet the Bears
When Mike Montgomery retired following the 2013-14 season, he certainly didn’t leave the cupboard bare. Despite losing about 27 points per game with the departures of Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon, Cal still returned a loaded backcourt with tons of offensive talent. When Cuonzo Martin was dealing with an unappreciative fanbase in Knoxville that was trying to run him out of town, Berkeley provided a perfect landing spot, giving him a team that wouldn’t require rebuilding.
At the point, junior Tyrone Wallace (No. 3) is a true combo guard with excellent slashing abilities. He isn’t just a head-down, drive-at-the-rim kind of guy, as he can wiggle through traffic and hit floaters or pull-up jumpers from all over the court. He takes 26.2% of the team’s shots when he’s on the floor, but still manages to log assists on 31.1% of the buckets. The 6’5″ guard could pose some matchup issues for the smaller Texas backcourt.
Joining Wallace in the backcourt is Jordan Mathews (No. 24), another guard who can create his own shot, but who is also a big-time threat from long range. On the year, Mathews is 5-for-13 from behind the arc, and with the speed that Cal moves the ball, they can often find him for wide open looks.
Sophomore wing Jabari Bird (No. 23) is a 6’6″ guy who can easily find cracks in the defense, and is always looking for teammates who are freed up by his penetration. Like Wallace, Bird plays a key role in a ton of Cal possessions, as he takes 28.4% of the shots when he’s on the floor, while also assisting on more than 32% of the buckets. For a Texas team with a small backcourt and no prototypical wings, Bird will be another interesting matchup.
In the frontcourt, junior Christian Behrens (No. 14) has started all three games, but is averaging just over 20 minutes per game. Behrens has dealt with serious knee injuries dating back to high school, and has yet to be more than a role player for Cal. It looks like Coach Martin is taking it slow with Behrens right now, and utilizing a rotation at the four spot.
Senior David Kravish (No. 45) rounds out the starting five, and will face a tall order against the size of Texas tonight. The 6’10″ Kravish is truly an all-around player, as he can block shots, rebound well, stretch the floor with his jumper, and is a great passer. That jumper and passing ability make him a threat out of the high post, and he helps Cal break down opposing zone defenses from that soft spot at the free throw line.
In the backcourt, Sam Singer (No. 2) is the team’s backup point guard, but is not nearly the dual threat that the rest of the Cal guards are. He’s a steady guard who posted a 2.56-to-1 turnover ratio as a freshman, but has unfortunately struggled with ball control through the first three games this year.
Graduate transfer Dwight Tarwater (No. 1) came to Berkeley after finishing his degree at Cornell, and can play on the wing or serve as an undersized stretch four. He’s averaging just under 20 minutes per game, is 6-for-10 from long range, and has a 75% eFG mark.
Facing the size of Texas, Coach Martin may elect to increase the minutes for freshman Kingsley Okorah, a 7’1″ freshman who originally committed to Tennessee, but followed his coach to Berkeley. Roger Moute a Bidias (No. 22) is a 6’6″ sophomore forward who is averaging less than 16 minutes per game, but may also see a little more PT against Texas, thanks to a 7’1″ wingspan.
Keys to the game
1. Dominate the glass – The Golden Bears are rather thin in the frontcourt, and they lack the size of the Longhorns. Through three games, they have posted rebounding numbers on both ends of the court that are only average, and they should find it hard to improve those marks against Texas tonight. If the Longhorns can take advantage of their size and dominate the glass on both ends of the court, they’ll limit extra possessions for a dangerous Cal offense, while giving their own bigs some easy second-chance points.
2. Limit dribble penetration – This will be easier said than done against a talented Cal backcourt that can easily break down opposing defenses off the bounce. The Longhorns fortunately have great shot blockers inside to help clean things up when the perimeter defense breaks down, but the Golden Bears are also really talented passers. Rather than barrel headlong into a stout Texas interior defense, the Cal guards are much more likely to find open teammates when they are able to penetrate, which would mean easy buckets and wide-open threes.
3. Pound it down low – Texas has the clear size advantage in this one, and they need to exploit that early and often. In addition to getting easy points and covering for their own shooting woes, the Longhorns can hopefully tag the thin Cal frontcourt with some foul trouble early, which would only serve to increase the Texas size advantage down low.