Thanks to the good dudes at California Golden Blogs for answering a few questions about the Bears in advance of Wednesday's regular season finale at Haas Pavilion.
1. What's been the key to the Bears' 7-game winning streak?
Norcalnick: Defense, defense, defense. At the moment, Kenpom.com says that Cal's defense is the 2nd best in the conference. It was middle-of-the-road about midway through the season. Richard Solomon and David Kravish have blossomed as post defenders, and the entire team has learned to use their length and athleticism to block shots, disrupt passing lanes, and otherwise make life difficult for opponents. Not a single team has shot above 50% since Colorado destroyed Cal in Boulder.
LEastCoastBears: Offensively, the Bears finally got more consistent production from Justin Cobbs to be that second source of points. The Cal Bigs also started to convert the close range looks at a much more reasonable rate. During the Bears' struggle, the team would often go through 7 or 8 minutes without any kind of offense at all. Now, there appears to be more options to pick up the scoring (adding Tyrone Wallace driving to the basket in addition to Cobbs and the Cal forwards) than just Crabbe.
2. After a couple of you mentioned that depth was Cal's biggest weakness, the Stanford bench outscored the Bears' bench 26-3 in the first meeting. Is depth still an issue, and if so, do you think it'll hurt Cal in the Pac-12 and NCAA Tournaments?
Norcalnick: Depth is still an issue, as Cal basically uses just a 7 man rotation, with Brandon Smith and Robert Thurman coming off the bench. It's possible that guard Ricky Kreklow will return from a foot injury against Stanford, but it's unknown how ready he is, and he'll likely only play 10 minutes anyway.
Of course, depth is a much bigger problem when your starters aren't playing well. That was certainly the case for Cal Maples, but seems unlikely to be the case now.
LEastCoastBears: The Bears didn't even have Brandon Smith in the first meeting with Stanford, so just having Smith back significantly improved the Cal bench. Given it is "Senior Day" and he can provide some short burst of quality floor time, I expect Bak Bak to get some run on Wednesday.
As for the Pac-12 tournament, I think the Bears do have enough depth to possibly win 3 games. I don't see the team wearing down physically to be an issue as much as not having good enough backups if the starters get into foul troubles.
3. What Cal player has improved the most since the first meeting at Maples?
Norcalnick: A tough call between Richard Solomon and Tyrone Wallace. Wallace's improvements are expected, because he's a freshmen gaining experience as the year goes along. He had been impressing Cal fans all year long with his speed and athleticism, but he wasn't finishing drives or hitting jumpers. His shot has started to fall and that makes him a much more complete player.
For Solomon, it's a combination of finally putting together his physical gifts on defense and playing within himself on offense. His improvement has balanced Cal's offense so that Allen Crabbe doesn't have to score 20+ for the Bears to win.
LEastCoastBears: I will just add that Wallace has also improved his defense since that first meeting. Wallace has the quick hands to knock some ball loose as well as the reach to block the opposing guards.
4. It's a difficult question to answer without knowing Cal's seeding/matchups, but can you see this team making it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament? Going farther?
Norcalnick: Yes, but I'd like their chances as an 11 seed (or if they win the Pac-12 tourney, a 6? That seems optimistic) more than I like their chances as a 9 seed. When you have a player like Allen Crabbe, you can hope that he gets hot and shoot you to victory. But Cal's defense hopefully will give them the consistency to stay close to anybody.
LEastCoastBears: Is Gonzaga for real? There are so many question mark at the top of the college basketball world this year that I don't quite fear that dreadful 8/9 seed as much as in years past.
5. Guest question from Johnny Dawkins: What does Stanford need to do to win this game?
Norcalnick: Get the ball inside to Dwight Powell and see if he can get Solomon or Kravish in foul trouble. Do whatever it is he did to Justin Cobbs in the first match-up, when he shot just 3-14 from the field. Mostly, just play really fundamentally solid defense, with lots of physical pressure on Crabbe and Cobbs. Cal can be vulnerable to bad shooting nights, even during their streak - like when they scored 48 but held Oregon to 46. If Stanford holds Cal to 48 like the Ducks did, I like their chances.
LEastCoastBears: A heavy dosage of Powell and Huestis. Those two are certainly capable of dominating the inside and get Solomon and Kravish into foul trouble.
6. You're Bernard Muir. Assuming Stanford doesn't win the Pac-12 Tournament, do you fire Dawkins?
Norcalnick: If I have the money to do so, and the money to hire a decent replacement? Yeah, probably. Dawkins perplexes me. He's recruiting well. His teams look really good at times. The computer numbers love them, at least relative to wins and losses. There's just something missing, and I don't really think I can figure out what that is.
Dawkins has established himself as thoroughly average. It's possible that he will figure it out and take Stanford to the next level like Monty eventually did. It seems more like likely that he will continue to be average. As much as I don't want to admit it, Stanford as an institution strives for more than mediocrity at everything they do. I find it odd that they seem to have settled for it with Dawkins.
LEastCoastBears: Based on result alone, one can argue that Dawkins' team is just on the verge of making that break through. From the few Stanford games that I have watched, I am not that impressed with Dawkins' in game management but college coaching is a lot more than just in game strategies. Stanford obviously has the $ to try to get someone better but I would be mildly shocked if Dawkins is let go at the end of this year.