After a dismal loss to the UCLA Bruins, the Arizona Wildcats (16-7, 6-4) will look to right the ship Thursday when they visit the California Golden Bears (10-13, 4-6) in Berkeley to begin the Bay Area road trip.
It is the first, and only, time the Wildcats will battle the Bears in the regular season. Tip-off is set for 8:30 p.m. MST on FOX Sports 1.
We wanted to know more about Cal before then, so we caught up with Rob Hwang of CaliforniaGoldenBlogs.com to get some insight. Here’s the Q&A.
What were expectations for Cal this year, and how have they lived up to them?
I think it’s easy to say the expectations were not that high, but though a new coaching regime should push the squad over the 8 total wins over the last two years. The Bears have done just that. Mark Fox’s coaching with a new sense of belief around the players and program has elevated the program from the basement of the conference to the middle of the conference.
What was the fan base’s reaction to the Mark Fox hiring?
I’d have to say mixed. Half of the fan base was excited just to get away from the Wyking Jones era, and see a new coach. That coupled with an experienced HC in Division I thought it could bring a steadying hand to a tumultuous two years. The other half? Not excited at all. It looked like a retread hire coach, with not a lot of upside recruiting or performance-wise, given that he had 10 years at a Power-5 school and severely underachieved. The added fact that Tom Crean is being very successful there (at Georgia) doesn’t help.
What are the biggest changes Fox has made?
It’s got to be culture and accountability. Fox has made an effort to totally change the culture and feel around the program. In that sense it feels very much like how Justin Wilcox changed the atmosphere around the football program. Keeping players accountable to their play, hard-nosed defense and constant preaching of getting better every day.
How optimistic are you about the program’s future?
Personally? My optimism is that we’ll be more competitive in the next few years, and maybe the stars align and we challenge for that 3/4 spot in the conference. The on-court test has shown vast improvement, but Fox has yet to show that he can adapt to the modern game and coach an above-average offense. We’ll be a very good defense team going forward, but the offense still is an old school inside-out offense that doesn’t use the strength of the current players.
What should Arizona fans know about Matt Bradley?
He’s a strong safety playing the 2-guard. No joke. He’s built like that. He’s strong and loves contact going to the hoop. He’s cold blooded with his shooting from beyond the arc and is unafraid with the ball in his hands. He does drive too hard at times and it results in a lot of charge calls, but he’s also at his best when he’s attacking downhill. He’s become more comfortable as a facilitator in the pick and roll.
Aside from Bradley, who is another game-changer for Cal?
The last few games it’s been a mix of Paris Austin and Andre Kelly. Austin has been the scoring spark the Bears need when Matt is cold or in foul trouble, but he is also very streaky. Kelly has been the steadying hand in the paint cleaning up the boards on defense and offense and finishing off at the rim with the pick-and-roll. He’s got really soft hands and a great touch around the rim. He just lacks the couple of inches that could make him a dominant big in the conference.
What are Cal’s strengths and weaknesses?
Strengths: Keeping the scoring down for both teams.
Weakness: Keeping the scoring down for both teams.
The Bears have grown significantly on defense and can limit good shots for an offense, but they also can’t seem to take advantage of the misses unless it’s in transition. So you might see both teams score a minuscule amount with the winning team peeling away just due to made shots near the end of the game. Case and point? Our game against Oregon two weeks ago. (The Ducks won 77-72 in Berkeley.)
What are the keys to beating Arizona?
Knock down shots. As I said previously, the defense has gotten better. Now are they up for the challenge against an athletic team like Arizona? That remains to be seen. So it comes down to the other side. Open layups are going to be hard to come by so can we knock down shots on the perimeter and can our bigs make just a few of their shots in the paint to keep the Wildcats honest?
Arizona wins 58-50.