Cal enters this matchup unranked at 10-3. Returning most of their starters from last season and joining them with an elite recruiting class, the Golden Bears began the season in the top 15 of the AP poll. They have subsequently disappointed.
In the Las Vegas International (which is not to be confused with the familiar Las Vegas Classic), Cal lost back to back games to San Diego State and Richmond. On the surface, losing to the Aztecs seems respectable, since they’re reliably terrific. Not so fast, pod racer. The Aztecs are sitting at 7-6 with ugly losses to the San Diego Toreros, the Redwood Rangers and the Grand Canyon Antelopes. I only made up one of those teams.
I should probably mention that Cal took No. 5 Virginia into overtime before losing by one. I don't know about you, but I think that should count as a win in the standings. At least it counts in KenPom rankings where Cal is No. 40 in the country, five spots ahead of the Buffs.
To sum up Cal's squad, these Golden Bears may be talented bunch of players Colorado will face all season. They're not the best team Colorado will face, but they could be the best. For that, Cal calls upon three players who will surely be NBA players this time next year, should the two freshmen, Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, decide to finally get paid for their labor. The third player is senior Tyrone Wallace, a potential first rounder. Brown and Rabb, by the way, would have to play atrociously the rest of the season to not be selected in the lottery. If they play as well as they can, both can vie to be the second overall pick, after Australian sensation Ben Simmons of LSU, of course.
Keys to the Game
Win the turnover battle and force freshmen mistakes
As any young team will show, turnovers are rather easy to accrue over time. If turnovers aren't forced on the other end, those lost possessions add up rather quickly and can cost a team a close game that they should otherwise win. Oh hello, SMU, I see you and your No. 6 RPI ranking.
Cal isn't exactly a turnover prone team, and having a senior point guard certainly helps that, but the Golden Bears have had ball security issues against tough defenses. That's mostly because of their youth. In their three losses, Über-freshmen Rabb and Brown have averaged 6 combined turnovers per game.
Scott and Gordon possess the ultra-quick hands of UVA's Anthony Gill, but they can still force a handful of turnovers from the ever-efficient Rabb. As for Brown, the Buffaloes' Wild Wings aren't known for their defense, especially not their swiping skills (just 16 steals combined between Tre, King and Fortune), but they can certainly force errant passes.
Colorado isn't exceptionally good at forcing turnovers and they don't have a top-20 defense like Virginia or San Diego State. But no matter, Colorado is fully capable of playing excellent team defense against an incredibly athletic Cal team. With better ball handling from Josh Fortune and Dom Collier (which isn't a given), the Buffs should win the turnover game. Colorado 1, Cal 0
Win the battle of the rim (this is more of a defensive category)
Those future first rounders Cal has happen to be mighty athletic. This athleticism translates into an exceptional ability to get to the rim, where they consistently finish tough shots. Containment is going to be huge in stopping their offense.
Wallace, a 6'5 lefty combo guard, should provide matchup problems for the Buffs all game. He struggles with his shot on occasion, but he's a gifted ball handler and will happily penetrate the defense on dribble-drives. Once he's inside the defense, he'll take over the brain and eventually work his way into having complete control over his victim's limbs before attacking the victim's unsuspecting loved ones -- uh, nevermind, wrong writing assignment.
Anyhow, I expect Josh Fortune to guard Wallace most of the game. Dom Collier is more likely to guard Cal's other starting combo guard, 6'3 Jordan Mathews (Cal's lone three-point threat), because of size matchups. I'm not sold on Fortune being anything more than an OK defender, so I give the advantage to Cal. Colorado 1, Cal 1
Jaylen Brown represents a further matchup problem that Colorado hasn't had to deal with yet this season. Brown is terrifically explosive and in no way should as quick as he is within his 225 lb. frame. With his impeccable strength, Brown powers through contact to finish in traffic seemingly at will.
Playing an elite forward isn't new to the Buffs, having handled Iowa State's Georges Niang fairly well, but they haven't faced a forward as gifted as Brown since playing Arizona's Stanley Johnson last season. Guarded by his former high school teammate Xavier Johnson, Stanley Johnson went to work against the Buffs to score 37 points in 58 minutes of work.
Without XJ for the foreseeable future, Tad Boyle will try to neutralize Brown with Tre`Shaun Fletcher and George King. Unfortunately, neither Fletcher nor King are quick enough to stay in front of Brown. There is still hope in containing him however.
As young as he is, Brown hasn't had the time to polish his ball handling. As such, he has fairly basic driving moves and struggled when forced left. Combined with an inconsistent jump shot, a heady defense can take advantage of Brown's weakness and focus solely on containment. Still, I give Cal the advantage here because Brown is just so dang dynamic. Colorado 1, Cal 2
Ivan Rabb, the biggest of Cal's big three, has as much potential to be an interior force as anyone in basketball. Rabb has great size, a pure jump shot and exceptional touch at the rim. However, Rabb has yet to refine his post game, nor is he strong enough to power through defenders. Wesley Gordon and Josh Scott are too defensively savvy to lose this matchup. Colorado 2, Cal 2
Win the coaching battle
Let's see ... In one corner we have Cal's Cuonzo Martin, and in the other, Colorado's Tad Boyle. One of whom has spent years at Tennessee gaining a reputation as being a terrific recruiter who always found a way to underwhelm with his team's performance. The other is a solid recruiter with a reputation of being a fantastic defensive-minded head coach with a penchant for turning overlooked prospects into NBA players. Considering Cal started the season ranked No. 14 and has been one of college basketball's biggest disappointment despite having a superlative combination of veteran leadership and young talent, I gotta give a big ol' advantage to Colorado's balding talisman. Colorado 3, Cal 2
Oh, that's nice. Too bad this game is in Berkeley. Colorado 3, Cal 3
Did you see that Allen Crabbe is becoming a quality role player for your beloved Trail Blazers, and he's doing so with impeccable hair? Colorado 4, Cal 4
Fine -- this will end it, even though this happened two months ago. Did you see Spencer Dinwiddie discretely eating Halloween candy on the Pistons' bench during a game? Colorado 5, Cal 4
Damn you and your mustachioed musketeer.
Actually, it was a Snickers. Zing!
Colorado 68, Cal 66