Tonight, the Cal Men’s Basketball team takes on the Oregon Ducks in Eugene, the Bear’s Pac-10 road opener, and only their 3rd road game this season. Bonus — the game is on TV! (OK, Comcast Sports Net only sorta counts as "on TV", but I’m sure your local sports Bar carries it. You just have to ask the bartender to switch one of the TVs in the corner away from whatever NBA game is on.)
Here at the California Golden Blogs, we’re trying to upgrade our basketball coverage to the level of our football coverage. Honest, we are! It’s just that my spare time this week has mostly gone into working on the new site layout, meaning I’ve done little but stare at HTML tags lately. (Hey, the life of a former EECS major isn’t always glamorous; it’s not always about chicks and rock stars and such. In fact, it’s mostly just other dudes and Guitar Hero…)
Anyway, with the game on TV tonight, I’d like to know what I’m watching for, so without writing a real preview, I thought I’d just cobble one together from other, more informed sources. Here we go:
First off, Oregon (40) is 10-4 this year, including wins both at Kansas State (82) and against Utah (90), the two non-conference games that Cal lost. They’re also coming off a big road victory at Arizona (13), a place that, to my memory, Ben Braun has still not managed to win at. However, their losses are worse than ours, dropping games at St. Mary’s (4), to Nebraska (129), Oakland (162), and, last Thursday, at Arizona State (61), a game in which the Ducks managed to score only 54 points. (Numbers in parentheses are RPI numbers, via Ken Pomeroy. Cal’s RPI, in case you’re wondering, is 68.) There’s no shame (at least this year) in losing road games to ASU or St. Mary’s, but home losses to Nebraska and especially Oakland are head-scratchers. Just how consistent is this team?
[Edit: I was mistaken in examining Oregon’s schedule. Both the Nebraska and Oakland losses were technically on neutral courts, but essentially road games (Nebraska in Omaha, and Oakland at the Palace in Detroit). So, no losses yet this season at Mac Court. That sounds more like the Oregon teams we’re used to seeing. Still doesn’t excuse losing to Oakland…]
Gone this year is PG Aaron Brooks, off to the NBA (thank god!). In his absence, Malik Hairston has become the Duck’s leading scoring, dropping 18.2 ppg, good for 5th in the Pac-10, and Maarty Leunen isn’t too far behind with 15.0 ppg, 10th in the conference. Leunen is also 2nd in the conference in rebounding, pulling down 10.2 rpg. DeVon Hardin, time to man up!
Overall, Oregon leads the Pac-10 in scoring (83.4 ppg), while Cal is second with 80.5 ppg. I don’t expect either team to have trouble scoring; maybe a little defense would be nice, though. Ben Braun certainly thinks so:
"I think our team understands how good we can be offensively, but what it doesn’t understand is how much defense has to do with that," Braun said. "If we play better defense, our offensive productivity will only go up."
Of course, Braun isn’t the only one talking up defense. From the Oregon Daily Emerald:
"We have to start with defense. That helps us play our game because when we get defensive stops we can get out and run," senior forward Malik Hairston said. "I know I say that all the time but that’s basically our game. We have a lot of talented basketball players, one’s that are able to make plays, and we can’t make those plays if we don’t get out and run."
The central cog of Oregon’s defensive strategy will also be Leunen. The senior has played against a virtual "who’s who" of college big men in his career (Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, and Michael Beasley, to name a few) and seems to have a knack for being able to play them tough physically and slow them down without getting himself in foul trouble.
This game might feel like a bunch of midgets running around Hardin and Anderson’s ankles. From the Chronicle:
Oregon essentially starts five guards with four players at 6-foot-6 or shorter and 6-9 Maarty Leunen, who is more of a perimeter player than a post.
So what’s Oregon going to do to counter Cal’s size advantage? Also from the Daily Emerald:
The Ducks plan to use their multitude of capable slashers to take the ball right at the big men to get high-percentage shots and create foul trouble for Cal.
"We want to stick to putting the pressure on them by taking the ball to the hoop and putting them in situations where maybe they foul, and just make things difficult for them," Leunen said. "We’re just going to stick to our game and try and get out in transition and take advantage of our mismatches."
Much as Cal has tried to play more up-tempo this year, I don’t know that they’ll be able to outrun Oregon’s speed. If the Bears can’t slow them down, they probably end up getting worn out tonight. Conversely, if the Bears can slow it down and limit turnovers and transition buckets for the Ducks, I like their chances against a talented but flawed Oregon club.
One of Oregon’s most glaring flaws is poor free-throw shooting. They’ve been much better in recent years, but this year they’re only hitting 65.1% from the charity stripe (8th in the Pac-10), as compared to the Bears’ 75.4%, good for 3rd in the conference. If the game is tight down the stretch, fouling may actually be a decent strategy for the Bears.
The Oregon road swing has been relatively kind to the Bears recently, with Cal taking 3 of the last 6 in Eugene and 4 of the last 6 in Corvallis. With road wins in the Pac-10 coming at a premium, and with very tough road games at Washington State, Arizona, and UCLA looming, I’d say this weekend is the Bears best shot at sweeping a Pac-10 road trip this year. That all starts tonight in Eugene.