Who’s the favorite here?

When news broke back in September that Saint Mary’s and California would meet in Berkeley on Dec. 12 for the first time in 11 years, the narrative immediately took on a David vs. Goliath cast: Cal was loaded, Saint Mary’s was bereft, no wonder the Bears chose this year for the game, etc., etc.

Cal has a solid back court anchored by 6-5 senior point guard Tyrone Wallace, a first-team all-Pac 12 selection last year based on his 17.1 PPG average. The only question sports fans have about Wallace is why he has taken so long to join the NBA.

Wallace is flanked by 6-6 junior Jabari Bird (10.5 PPG) and 6-4 junior Jordan Matthews (13.6 PPG). That’s height, experience and scoring power (40+ PPG), just in the back court. Matthews, WCC fans might know, is the son of former USF coach Phil Matthews.

The twin cherries atop this Coach’s Delight were nationally-ranked forwards Ivan Rabb, the 6-11 local product who seemingly spent his entire career at Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School weighing which major power he would join, and Houston phenom Jaylen Brown, a 6-7 powerhouse who was considered one of the top two or three best high school players in America.

Cuonzo breaks ranks

Cal coach Cuonzo Martin could be forgiven for abandoning the caution exhibited by his predecessors beginning with the fiery Lou Campenelli, who took exception to the Gaels beating the Bears 61-51 in February, 1988 in Moraga. “Never again,” Campenelli swore about making the 15-minute trip from Berkeley to the Saint Mary’s campus, although, buttressed by the recruitment of Jason Kidd, he acquiesced to a 94-77 Cal romp at Oracle Arena in 1993. That turned out to be Campenelli’s last year at Cal, as his athletic director boss caught an earful of a typical Campenelli tongue-lashing following a Bear loss and fired him with 10 games left on the schedule.

The “never in Moraga” dictum has held up since Campenelli left. The Gaels and Bears did meet in Berkeley in November of 2004 in the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament, with Saint Mary’s winning 61-52. That Gael team went on to win an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament behind its own back court Golden Duo of Paul Marigny and E.J. Rowland, although Marigny didn’t play against Cal because of an academic suspension.

So, David vs. Goliath in a rematch. Is this a valid perspective from which to view the game?

Two things have gone wrong to muddy the waters: Cal has been underwhelming in its eight games so far this year (6-2), and the Gaels have been surprisingly good (6-0). It’s not just Cal’s losses to San Diego State and Richmond in the Las Vegas Invitational Tournament, it’s the near loss to a middling Wyoming team in Laramie (W78-72 in OT) and the even-more-unsettling struggle against a poor Seattle squad (W66-52) in Berkeley.

The early-season stumbles even caught the attention of Cal’s public relations arm at the San Francisco Chronicle sports page, prompting a story about freshman Brown’s “learning curve,” i.e. learning not to turn over the ball. In those lackluster efforts against Wyoming and Seattle, Brown went 3-8 with two turnovers and no assists before fouling out against Wyoming, and 3-13 with four fouls and two turnovers against Seattle.

Cal is no longer ranked in either of the national college polls, the AP’s sportswriters’ poll or the USA Today/ESPN coaches’ poll. You could say Saint Mary’s is actually ranked above Cal by the coaches, as it received 11 votes in their latest poll and Cal received only 4. That geek-infused entity known as the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), lists the Gaels as no. 20 in the country and Cal as no. 125. The Bears can take solace in Ken Pomeroy’s even geekier rankings, placing 52nd nationwide to 72nd for the Gaels. The final arbiters, Las Vegas odds makers, haven’t posted a line on the game yet.

The match-ups

Breaking down the game, Saint Mary’s, on paper, fares pretty well against Cal’s gold-plated front court. With Dane Pineau and Jock Landale switching off against Rabb, and Evan Fitzner and Kyle Clark taking turns on Brown, Saint Mary’s may have a slight edge. Given that group’s stellar performance against vaulted bigs at Stanford, Cal St. Bakersfield and UC Irvine, it is probably not shaking in its boots over Cal.

The photo above, courtesy of GoldenBearSports, Inc., shows what the Gael front line will face in the person of 6-11 Cal forward Ivan Rabb.

The back court could be another matter. The Gael guards, Joe Rahon and Emmett Narr, buttressed by Stefan Gonzalez off the bench, have been everything coach Randy Bennett could have envisioned. Rahon is rock-steady, and has proven brilliant at dissecting defenses and directing the offense to take advantage of deficiencies. Rahon scores or doesn’t score as the occasion requires, but his passing has been consistently excellent. After facing the Cameron Crazies at Duke and other hostile ACC crowds in his two years at Boston College, he is unlikely to be rattled by the atmosphere at Haas Pavilion.

Naar may be the easiest guard in DI hoops to underestimate. Maybe it’s his altar boy looks or his deliberate pace, but he never seems capable of the carnage he has wrought so far this year. Every time he shoots he gives the impression it’s the last thing he wants to do, but the shots fall with amazing regularity. His handle has been flawless this season, and combined with Rahon’s presents a tough deterrent to pressing defenses. Bottom line with these two: 83 assists to 23 turnovers.

But they haven’t faced guards with the height and quickness of Cal’s. A guess  would put Rahon on Wallace, since he has consistently guarded the opposition’s toughest player, and Naar on Matthews, leaving small forward Calvin Hermanson to cover Bird. Hermanson, at 6-6, is the only one of those three without a height disadvantage, but he has not gone up against anyone with Bird’s quickness. If the Gaels falter against Cal, it will probably be in the back court, with Wallace the most likely to inflict the most damage.

It could be that magical element, the intangibles, that decide this one. Cal has under-achieved this season, Saint Mary’s has over-achieved. The Gaels’ coach, Bennett, has an experience and wiliness edge on Cal’s Martin, and Saint Mary’s has more to gain from a win than Cal. My guess is the Gaels win it.



1 thought on “Who’s the favorite here?

  1. I long ago realized that sports betting is not profitable for anyone other than someone who spends far more time than I do in analysis. But if I was a bettor, this is the kind of game I’d avoid because it is so hard to predict. You have accurately described Cal’s under-achievement so far. As for SMC, the start has been very nice but the games have been at home. The most impressive win was probably against Stanford by virtue of a fabulous second half. It is easy to forget that Stanford had an edge in the first half. I don’t know that the infrequency of the local rivalry will have any bearing on the motivations of either side but I do think that this heralded and talented Cal team which has already disappointed their fans will not want to add salt to their wounds by coming out as less than best in the bay area, especially at home. On the other hand it could be that Cal’s lack of a true point guard and SMC’s consistent over-achievement will keep the score close and they could eke out a win as you predict.


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