On Nov. 21, Mark Fox will have his first nationally televised game as head coach of Cal men’s basketball. So far, the team has earned an impressive 4-0 record this season, but it’s about to leave the comfort zone of Haas Pavilion for the first time and could not be facing a bigger opponent to do so. The Bears will take on the best team in the country — No. 1 Duke — in the most famous arena in the country, Madison Square Garden.
After playing the first four games at home, including the two regional games of the 2K Empire Classic, Cal will travel to New York for the final rounds of the tournament. First it will face No. 1 Duke on Thursday, then Friday the Bears will play either No. 22 Texas or Georgetown — depending on the outcome of the matchup between the Longhorns and the Hoyas.
A game in the national spotlight could not have come at a worse time for Cal. Although the Bears are undefeated, they really struggled against Prairie View A&M on Monday — Cal had 22 turnovers and only scored 54 points. This is against a team whose adjusted defensive rating is ranked 224th in the country.
“We are excited. We haven’t talked about it too much yet,” said Joel Brown, Cal freshman guard. “We’re going to move on from this and get prepared for what’s next.”
What’s next may not be the best for the Bears, as the Blue Devils defense ranks in the top 15 nationally for steals and turnovers forced. Their overall adjusted defensive rating is second in the country. According to overall adjusted efficiency margin, Cal beating Duke would be a bigger upset than Evansville toppling former No. 1 Kentucky earlier this season.
“It’s a testament to how hard we’ve worked. Nothing was going our way offensively or defensively. But we stuck it out and ended up winning,” said sophomore guard Matt Bradley. “We’re 4-0 right now — I’m happy to say that.”
The Blue Devils are also a tested team which has earned their No. 1 spot. They defeated No. 4 Kansas to open their season before demolishing Colorado State, Central Arkansas and Georgia State. Across these four games, Duke has outscored its opponents by an average of 24.5 points.
One player to keep an eye on during the game will be sophomore Tre Jones. He is averaging 17 points per game, and dropped 31 in the Blue Devils’ last game against the Panthers — but he is not only an offensive player. He routinely forces turnovers and steals the ball from opposing guards, providing a strong overall defensive presence for Duke. Since the Bears’ defense struggles to keep guards contained, Jones has the possibility to have a huge impact on both sides of the court.
Cal has not played a No. 1 ranked team in more than five years, but the last time it faced a top-ranked opponent in 2014, the Bears defeated Arizona 60-58 in front of a sold-out crowd in Haas Pavilion. Cal’s last win against any team in the top 25 was last year, when it upset No. 25 Washington 76-73 at home.
If Cal manages to beat Duke, it will play the winner of Texas and Georgetown for the tournament title — but if the Bears lose, they will face the loser in a consolation match.
The Longhorns join the Bears and the Blue Devils at 4-0 for the season, including wins over Northern Colorado, Purdue, California Baptist and Prairie View A&M. Their wins over mutual opponents with Cal are by a combined 27 points, when the Bears won by a combined 24 points. The Hoyas are 3-1 after a 66-81 loss to Penn State last week, with wins over Mount St. Mary’s, Central Arkansas and Georgia State.
Although not many are expecting Cal to win, this tournament is an opportunity to show the world that the team can at least compete with some of the top teams in the country. As long as the Bears do not get blown out on live television and embarrassed on the national stage, most Cal fans should breathe a sigh of relief.
Trilok Reddy covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].