Pac-12 Game of the Week: California @ San Diego StatePosted by AMurawa on December 4th, 2011
Sunday afternoon, California makes its first true road trip of the season, heading south to face the San Diego State Aztecs. Since the Golden Bears were embarrassed by Missouri in the championship of the CBE Classic two weeks ago, they haven’t had much in the way of stiff competition, but the Aztecs should change all of that. SDSU is coming off a tough loss Wednesday night in which they blew a 17-point first half lead before succumbing to Creighton, so they’ll be primed to get back to their winning ways, while Cal is ready to prove to fans around the country that the performance against Missouri was an aberration.
After losing the bulk of last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, the Aztecs have turned to junior guard Chase Tapley as their primary offensive weapon, but new point guard Xavier Thames – a transfer from Washington State – is getting more and more comfortable every game; in the last two outings, he has gone for a combined 41 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds. Also, sophomore wing Jamaal Franklin has burst on to the scene this year, scoring double figures in all but one of his appearances, while helping out the shorthanded Aztecs on the glass. Steve Fisher really only has four frontcourt players to rely on, with seniors Garrett Green and Tim Shelton getting the bulk of those minutes up front, but he has been unafraid to run three and even four guards out there at a time. As of yet, that plan hasn’t really backfired, because although the Aztecs have come nowhere near duplicating last year’s stellar offensive rebounding numbers, they have been doing an excellent job of taking care of the defensive glass.
That’s a trait the Golden Bears have shared in their first seven games, taking care to grab almost 80% of their defensive rebound opportunities, good enough for fifth in the nation. While none of the Cal frontcourt players, senior Harper Kamp and freshman David Kravish chief among them, would ever be described as great college players, all have done a good job of pounding the glass and working hard on the defensive end. Where the Bears got killed in their 39-point loss to Mizzou was in the backcourt, the obvious strength of this Cal team. Jorge Gutierrez, Allen Crabbe, Brandon Smith and Justin Cobbs combined to shoot 9-33 from the field that night, with 13 turnovers and just five assists among them. While SDSU doesn’t force anywhere near the number of turnovers that Mizzou does, nor does it shoot the three-ball as well as the Tigers, the Aztec backcourt will give the Golden Bear backcourt its next biggest test of the season.
In short, this is an even matchup between two teams with similar strengths and weaknesses. Neither team’s frontcourt is going to scare its opponents much, and in this game, the two sides could battle to a draw. It’s the battles in the backcourt that will likely decide this game. Expect Gutierrez and Tapley to get plenty of face time with each other, each using their experience defensively to limit their opponent. Meanwhile Crabbe and Franklin, two long guards, will square off at the wing, where Franklin’s athleticism could be a good match for Crabbe’s length. And at the point, Cobbs and Smith will take turns trying to check Thames. In the end, it should come down to which team can make the most plays at the end of the game, and given that criteria, SDSU may be the slight favorite here, as they’ve played five straight close games against quality opponents, while the Golden Bears’ closest game was their 16-point win over McNeese State in their last outing.