1. How has Cal progressed since the last meeting in Berkeley? What's different about this team now than a month ago?
boomtho (BT): Cal isn't really a different team than a month ago. There's still a ton of talent across the board but the team is struggling for consistent effort and execution.
There are definitely encouraging signs about where Cal can get to by the end of the year, however. First, Ricky Kreklow is back and is playing great. He's usually a good shooter, but he brings a unique combination of defense, high basketball IQ and ball movement, and toughness that this team was really lacking. He allowed Monty to go to an intriguing 1-4 look against USC (given Solomon was in foul trouble) that could serve Cal well going forward. Second, all-world recruit Jabari Bird is back and starting to look healthy-ish. He had a very productive second half against USC and he gives us a nice dose of athleticism and (in theory) outside shooting which could be really beneficial.
Nick Kranz (NK): The biggest difference is the healthy return of Ricky Kreklow. Ricky is important because he's one of Cal's better defenders, he's a decent shooter that spaces the floor better, and he's big enough to play the 4 in certain situations, allowing Cal to play small and get lots of shooters on the court. He's not a cure-all for everything ailing the Bears, but he makes Cal a better team.
2. Jabari Bird certainly seemed like the new Allen Crabbe during the recruiting process but he's coming off the bench right now. Why isn't he starting on a regular basis? Where do you see his flaws? Strengths?
BT: You're right that Cal fans expected a near seamless transition from Crabbe to Bird before the season. Unfortunately, a few things have prevented that vision from coming to fruition. First, Bird suffered a tough ankle injury towards the end of 2013 that really help him back right as Pac-12 play was ramping up. Deprived of practice and minutes, he fell a bit behind. Second, Bird is nowhere near the rebounder or defender that Crabbe was. That's not necessarily an indictment - Crabbe took time to get there too - but still, Bird was really struggling to fight through screens, square up and defend, and generally grab the tough rebounds that Crabbe made look easy.
I don't want to end on a negative note though - I have very high hopes for Jabari and I'm sure he's going to flourish next year. He's just a bit behind schedule is all.
NK: Jabari was really set back by an ankle injury that kept him out for a few weeks in the middle of the season. Those are key weeks for development for any freshman, and it was hard for him to work back into a rotation that had become more settled while he was out. His strengths are athleticism and the ability to go on a hot shooting streak. His weaknesses are mostly related to inexperience - he can be hesitant making decisions on offense, and he doesn't always know what to do on defense. Unfortunately, these are problems that would have been greatly helped by playing and practicing in the middle of the year.
3. Cal fell apart in overtime against ASU the last time around. What's your analysis of what happened there?
BT: I think Cal just ran out of steam in OT. While Cal did have the lead before Marshall's game tying 3 pointer, they trailed for most of the game and needed a difficult 16 point rally just to break even late in the second half.
The bigger issue for me was Cal's inability to defend Jahii Carson. That game was supremely frustrating because Montgomery continued to switch nearly all perimeter ball screens, often leaving big men (in some cases even freshman Kameron Rooks, who is not very agile) on an island against Carson. I think Cal will have a much better plan to defend Carson this time around.
NK: The psychological argument is that the Bears were demoralized after letting ASU tie the game when it looked like Cal had it wrapped up. I'd just simply say that ASU played better, by hitting a couple early shots in the OT period and then getting to the line and converting over and over.
4. Cal has been on a similar roller coaster to ASU winning its first five games in conference play before losing three straight and then beating Arizona, why have the Bears seen such an up and down season?
BT: I briefly alluded to this earlier, but Cal has struggled to consistently execute, both offensively and defensively. Offensively, we have limited creative ability outside of Cobbs, which puts a huge burden on him to be both the primary distributor and primary crunch time scorer. Cal hasn't shown great urgency on offense, and in games they've struggled, they've been late to initiate primary sets. Last, Cal has struggled against the zone, often swinging the ball around the perimeter without purpose, leading to contested 3 pointers or tough midrange jumpers.
Defensively, in addition to the switching issues mentioned earlier, Cal has struggled with some of the bigger, more athletic teams in conference. Stanford is a good example - the length of Powell, Huestis, and Randle really gave Cal fits on the defensive end. Somehow this didn't translate to our two blowout wins over UW so I hesitate to call it a trend, but definitely something to keep an eye on.
NK: Cal struggles to bring consistent effort and focus on defense, and it has bitten the Bears - particularly in the previous loss to ASU. That said, Cal's early 5-0 start included just one team in the top half of the conference standings, so the early schedule was clearly a bit softer than it appeared initially.
5. Cal has done some things that ASU probably needs to do to get into the tournament in beating Stanford and then the Oregon schools on the road, what were the keys to victory there?
BT: Frankly, I didn't see all of those games, but I think the keys are as follows:
Stanford: deal with their athleticism and length (Powell, Huestis, Randle) and 3 point shooting
Oregon State: attack with purpose against the zone and stay attached to Roberto Nelson
Oregon: Stay patient on offense and exploit their weak perimeter defense
NK: Mostly, Cal just shot the ball really, really well. Against Oregon, freshman Jordan Mathews got red hot and simply hit jumper after jumper, and it was enough to hold off the Ducks.
6. A lot of struggles for the Sun Devils have started with lack of rebounding, how can ASU gameplan to keep Kravish and Solomon at bay?
BT: Cal isn't really a prolific offensive rebounding team, ranking only 183rd in the country in terms of offensive rebounds per game. Because of that, I don't think it will be too hard for ASU to secure defensive boards, mostly because that's part of Monty's philosophy (much like the Spurs, he prioritizes getting back over crashing for boards).
That being said, Solomon and Kravish are both very intelligent rebounders who can track the ball well and usually box out pretty diligently, so it will be difficult to keep them at bay for the whole game. I think the key to beating Cal on the boards is actually having your guards crash down and help harder than Cal's guards do.
NK: The way Cal plays makes it very difficult to stop Kravish and Solomon from controlling the defensive glass, but also makes it not too difficult to lock down the offensive glass, and as a result it's relatively rare for Cal to either vastly outrebound their opponent or to get outrebounded themselves. Monty, like many coaches these days, puts a tremendous emphasis on securing the defensive glass and puts a strong emphasis on getting back in transition defense, which naturally limits chances for offensive rebounds. And when you're against Jahii Carson, getting back in transition becomes an even greater focus.
7. What's the key to defending Justin Cobbs for ASU?
BT: I think the key to guarding Cobbs is keeping him out of the paint. He's incredibly dangerous there - he's a crafty finisher with good strength but also has great vision, especially to the corner. He's good at finishing with either hand as well so there's not an easy way to shade him. Cal hurt USC at the end of the game by running repeated high screens at the 3 point elbow, and USC's bigs weren't mobile enough to move with Cobbs.
Defenders should want to sag a bit off Cobbs and make him a bit jumper happy - that's probably the weakest part of his offensive game. He can also be slightly turnover prone in transition, though I don't think there's a real defensive gameplan there.
NK: I don't know that there is one key - Justin is a pretty balanced player in terms of his offensive skill set. His jumper is decent, he can drive the lane, and he wants to be a pass first player. The best thing you can do is probably to clog passing lanes and force him to try to beat you in isolation. That's a particularly good strategy if you happen to have one on-ball defender who can give him trouble.
8. The Bears are 27th in the country in assists per game with 15.6, how does Cal share the ball effectively and what kind of offensive sets do the Bears like to run?
BT: Cal's assists totals are high for a few reasons. First, everyone on the roster is pretty unselfish and most people have above average vision, including our bigs. In addition to being unselfish, most of our wings and frontcourt players are quite versatile. Kravish, for example, can both hit midrange jumpers consistently and post up, meaning that there are lots of ways to get him the ball in scoring position.
Offensively, the Bears have shown a nice ability to get out and run in spurts, though it's not core to the offense the way it is for UW. In the half court, the offense is quite different against man or zone. Against man, they run a lot of flex cuts (to varying degrees of success) and rely on Cobbs' penetration to create shots for others. Against the zone, Monty likes to run high-low (we have a number of options for who to put high), but the offense does stagnate into perimeter passing at times.
NK: Cal will run a few different sets depending on what the defense wants to give them. Cobbs and Solomon will certainly run pick and rolls, and in certain situations they'll try to use Kravish to run sets out of the high post. There will be some motion offense, and traditional post-ups particularly to Solomon. Cal's problem recently has been a lack of decisiveness on offense, which Monty describes as the ball getting 'sticky' and not moving quickly enough to create good looks.
9. How are Cobbs and Solomon's careers past college basketball shaping up? What do their NBA draft prospects look like at the moment and do you think they could see success at the next level?
BT: I haven't seen anything that predicts that either will get drafted, though I certainly have not looked in depth. I think Solomon is being held back by (1) questions about his effort, work rate, and mental consistency and (2) his limited offensive game, especially when he steps out of the paint. I think he has the tools (or at least the foundation to develop those tools) to be a NBA big man, but I'm not sure that he'll get the chance.
I think Cobbs is being held back by his relative lack of size (he's listed at 6'3 but I don't think he's quite that big) and explosive athleticism.
In short, I don't think that either of them will get drafted, but they both should get decent summer league looks (similar to Jerome Randle and Jorge Gutierrez). I would guess that they both end up playing internationally and having reasonably long careers there.
NK: I have a hard time seeing Cobbs succeeding in the NBA because he is a bit undersized and doesn't have a good enough jumper to make up for that. Having said that, he's a solid passer and a better defender than most would give him credit for, so if a team needs a back-up point guard who won't be asked to score much, he could potentially fit the bill. Solomon is a more interesting case. He's clearly an excellent rebounder, and I don't doubt that he can translate that talent to the next level. He's long enough that he should be a capable defender. The question is if his offensive game is developed enough. I suspect he'll be borderline on draft night as well.
10.What's your prediction for Friday night and why?
BT: I don't have a good read on this Cal team, but the optimist in me says Cal wins a close one, 70-65. I think that the team comes out with a much better plan to contain Carson and that the addition of some offensive punch from Bird and Kreklow is the key different from the last meeting.
NK: I don't know what to expect, to be honest. ASU won in Berkeley despite getting basically zero production from Jordan Bachynski. You would expect a better game from him plus home court advantage would mean that ASU should be solidly favored. I'll guess ASU by eight, and continued existential angst for Cal fans, although that can typically go without saying.