While the Utes did what they had to do last week and more, pounding the Golden Bears into complete submission a second half was pretty much unnecessary as Utah split the regular season series.
But that was the exception, not the rule when Cal and Utah match up. The Bears are masterful at creating a slow tempo and engineering slugfests. Last time, the Bears lost contain and the Utes ran wild for arguably their best game in months. But these teams are familiar with gritty, defense-first battles, that have gone to overtime twice in the last three meetings.
Ivan Rabb seems to think Thursday will be a return to normal in that sense: "One thing about us is we know how to slow down and get stops on defense. Offense is off and on, but defense is always there."
There's going to be some odd factors, including Utah potentially adding Devon Daniels back to the lineup, the pressure of tournament play and the fact that Utah hasn't shot inside T-Mobile Arena before. It will be a test of culture: Is Utah's strong enough to impose its will on Cal in a neutral environment?
Let's find out.
Time, Place and [radio waves in] Space • If you've made it down to Las Vegas, check out the new home of the NHL's Golden Knights: T-Mobile Arena. The game is scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. MST (2:30 p.m. PST if you're on site), but in reality, it will air about 30 minutes after the end of Arizona State vs. Oregon immediately ahead of time (which determines the Utes' next opponent if they advance). Check out the broadcast on Pac-12 Networks and ESPN 700 A.M. if you don't want to leave the sports book.
The Line • As of Thursday morning, Utah is a 3.5-point favorite according to Vegas Insider. The Utes are 14-12-2 against the spread this year, with a healthy cover last week against Cal as a 2-point favorite.
Pregame Quotable • Larry Krystkowiak on David Collette: "Game-time decision." Larry Krystkowiak on Devon Daniels: "Game-time decision." Larry Krystkowiak on himself: "I might be a game-time decision. I don't know. Stay tuned."
Last time out • Cuonzo Martin called it the "worst game of the season," which probably accounts for all that went wrong for Cal as Utah ran over it 74-44. Four Utes scored in double figures, led by a powerful transition game that helped them accumulate a 20-point lead at halftime. Only Grant Mullins scored in double figures as Cal notched its lowest point total and shooting percentage of the year.
Telling Stat • How critical is Ivan Rabb to Cal's success? The Bears are 5-7 when he scores fewer than five field goals. Against Utah in the last game, he had none.
Bears Roster Overview • It's a very weird time for Cal, which has lost five of its last seven games and whose coach is the subject of very persistent rumors that he's looking at other jobs. But the Bears had enough to get past a fiesty Oregon State team on Wednesday, thanks much in part to Jabari Bird who had 20 points and Ivan Rabb who had a double-double. Two other 7-footers in Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks have helped shadow the good forwards in the league, and Cal does enough on the perimeter to lead the Pac-12 in shooting defense (39.4 percent, No. 13 nationally). Of course, Cal's scoring leaves much to be desired. Neither Rooks or Okoroh are serious scoring threats. Charlie Moore, who leads the team in assists, is a little more potent, and transfer Grant Mullins can get hot shooting from deep (2.14 3-pointers per game). You might circle senior Stephen Domingo as an X-factor after he scored a key 10 points against the Beavers. Both he and Bird can create match-up issues on the wing.
Behind Enemy Lines • Ryan Gorcey of Bear Territory had the skinny from Cal's win against the Beavers.
Something's Gotta Give • The tempo battle is so key, as Utah showed in the last game. With Cal's size, getting out in transition is important for turning lumbering big men from a strength into a weakness. KenPom ranks Cal's tempo at No. 293, which is the third-slowest in the Pac-12. Getting 16 fastbreak points and 13 points off 12 Cal turnovers was key. It requires getting the live ball turnovers that help drive pace (worth noting that Utah has a combined 19 steals in its last two games, both wins).
Cal's Edge • At least for most of the season, Cal has been an elite defensive rebounding team, getting 76.2 percent of all defensive rebound opportunities (No. 4 on KenPom). In the last game, Utah had seven offensive boards on which it scored 12 points. Rabb called that one of the key areas in which the Bears will try to lock down. It will be fascinating to see how the rebounding battle between he and Kuzma goes, but given that Cal is one of the tallest teams in the nation (and with Collette at least kind of a question mark), it seems fair to grant them the edge for now.
Utah's Edge • The Utes don't get a ton of credit for the interior defense, which has been really good. They allow only 46.6 percent 2-point shooting against DI competition, which KemPom ranks No. 70 nationally. Despite having one of the better big men in the league, the Golden Bears only shoot under 48 percent on 2-pointers, bogged down by two defense-first centers and a hit-or-miss group of slashers. It's a big reason Utah (and other teams) can get away with doubling Rabb, and why he only accounted for three shot attempts in the last game (all misses).
Injury Watch • David Collette and Devon Daniels both practiced on Wednesday. Larry Krystkowiak wouldn't confirm that they'll definitely play, but Kyle Kuzma said he thought they would. One might guess that Daniels, who has missed the last three games while "taking care of some things," might not re-enter the starting lineup if he does play in the Pac-12 Tournament. The key players for Cal looked good to go yesterday.
Watch Out For • It's unique that Thursday will be Utah's first-ever day in T-Mobile Arena. There will be a 30-minute morning shootaround, and then Utah plays in the afternoon. Krystkowiak said he has only seen 3D renderings of the building not actually been inside it. Think of what that means for the team: With many who are already new to the Pac-12 Tournament, Utah will be shooting in the gym for the first time hours before playing Cal. The Golden Bears shot 39.7 percent against the Beavers in the opening round, but now they have a feel for what they're competing in. For a Utes team prone to slow starts, that might be an issue.