TIPOFF: 6:30 p.m. PT Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena, Tempe, Ariz. TV/Radio: Pac-12 Networks/910-AM.
Having won two games in a row for the first time since December, the Bears try to add to their momentum Thursday night against the most surprising team in the Pac-12 Conference.
Cal has beaten Arizona State five straight times, but these Sun Devils are much more formidable. They have six wins at the halfway point of the Pac-12 schedule for just the sixth time since joining the conference in 1978-79, and they are 13-2 at home.
The key, Cal coach Mike Montgomery said, is freshman Jahii Carson.
“They haven’t really had a point guard. They’ve had some talent, but really havent had a guy who can run it,” Montgomery said. “They say he can get in the paint when he wants to. He’s small and he’s quick with the ball. He’s got a nice game around the basket.”
So does 7-foot-1 junior center Jordan Bachynski, who has become a defensive force in the middle. He leads the Pac-12 in blocked shots with 91 — more than seven conference teams have totaled and just one fewer than Cal has as a squad.
But this is an opportunity for the Bears to build on their home wins last week over Oregon State and Oregon. A win over ASU could vault the Bears as high as a tie for third place in the Pac-12, depending on the outcome of the Washington-UCLA game.
The Oregon games gave the Bears a blueprint for success.
“It just showed if we get in there and play great defense, we can pay with anyone even when our offense isn’t going as smoothly as we’d like,” senior center Robert Thurman said. “We realize defense is what wins games.”
The wins last week “also showed a little but of heart,” Thurman said. “We haven’t won too many close games like that.”
Two players who emerged as subtle game-changers for the Bears last week were senior sixth man Brandon Smith and junior post Richard Solomon.
Smith, finally healthy after missing a month with a concussion, delivered tenacious defense and a calming presence at the point.
“Brandon’s a tough guy,” Montgomery said. “I was really pleased with the defense he played. He got into people.”
“Having Brandon back is tremendous,” said Justin Cobbs, who shares the point guard spot with Smith. “The things he does don’t show up on the stat sheet. He’s a natural born leader.”
“He’s very composed and runs this offense very well,” Thurman added. “He’s a senior and he makes good decisions. It’s very important to have Brandon back.”
Solomon missed much of last season, suspended for academic shortcomings. Montgomery said it’s taken him time to regain his confidence and rhythm, but the 6-foot-10 forward had perhaps the best week of his career against the Oregon schools, contributing 25 points and 19 rebounds.
“He seems to have a much better understanding of what he can do. Certain shots we think are better for him. We’re trying to get him to do that,” Montgomery said. “His energy level was better.”
Thurman said the Bears are waiting for Solomon to become this player on a nightly basis. “Richard is a guy who’s capable of having a double-double every game,” Thurman said.
ABOUT THE SUN DEVILS: Carson enters the game on a roll, averaging 21.7 points over the past seven games. He is averaging 15 points in the second half alone of the past six games… Senior Carrick Felix is the only player in the Pac-12 ranked among the top 10 in both scoring (10th at 14.6) and rebounding (7th at 8.0). He has double-doubles in three of his past four games. … Sophomore forward Jonathan Gilling is averaging 11.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists over a four-game stretch. … ASU, which has often struggled to score consistently under coach Herb Sendek, is averaging 82.8 points over the past four games. … ASU ranks last in the Pac-12 in free throw shooting at .623.
THE SERIES: Cal leads 37-35. The Bears have won the past five meetings, including 68-47 at Berkeley in last season’s only meeting of the teams.
ETC: Junior walkon guard Jeff Powers was back at practice this week and expected to be available after injuring his knee vs. Oregon State. He sat out the Oregon game, but turns out the injury was nothing more than a bone bruise. … Allen Crabbe, still the Pac-12′s leading scorer at 19.4 ppg, needs six points to pass Jackie Ridgle (1,343 points) and become the No. 15 career scorer in Cal history. … ASU is second in the Pac-12 in 3-pointers made per game (7.5). Cal is last (3.9).
WHAT’S NEXT: Cal plays Arizona on Sunday at Tucson, Ariz. Tipoff is 4 p.m. PT.
Cal (13-8, 5-4 Pac-12)
|SG Allen Crabbe||6-6||Jr.||19.4||5.4|
|PF Richard Solomon||6-10||Jr.||8.4||6.6|
|PF David Kravish||6-9||So.||8.0||7.0|
|PG Justin Cobbs||6-2||Jr.||14.3||4.4*|
|SG Tyrone Wallace||6-3||Fr.||6.9||4.6|
|G Brandon Smith||5-11||Sr.||3.3||2.3*|
|C Robert Thurman||6-10||Sr.||5.2||3.9|
|F Bak Bak||6-9||Sr.||1.7||1.2|
Arizona State (17-5, 6-3 Pac-12)
|F Jonathan Gilling||6-7||So.||9.7||7.0|
|C Jordan Bachynski||7-1||Jr.||10.2||7.1|
|SG Carrick Felix||6-6||Sr.||14.6||8.0|
|SG Evan Gordon||6-1||Jr.||10.9||3.0|
|PG Jahii Carson||5-10||Fr.||18.3||5.3*|
|G Chris Colvin||6-2||Sr.||5.7||3.4|
|C Ruslan Pateev||7-0||Sr.||2.4||2.1|
|F Eric Jacobsen||6-10||Fr.||2.3||1.5|