If you looked back on Cal’s home loss to Arizona State on Dec. 3 this season and considered the Bears’ atrocious road record over the past three years, it would be entirely reasonable to conclude that a win is far out of the blue and gold’s grasp this weekend as they head to Tempe to face the Sun Devils.
But the story is more complex than that.
For as much as Cal has faltered outside of Berkeley this season, Arizona State has struggled similarly on its own court. The Sun Devils haven’t nabbed a home win since Nov. 29 against Houston Baptist. But what’s more telling of the matchup to come Saturday night is how the last nine games have gone for Arizona State. Amid three postponements, the team dropped six straight matchups, including home losses of six points and nine points to UCLA and USC, respectively.
And while Cal is emerging from a two-game losing streak of its own to the same teams by almost the same margin (four points and eight points, respectively), the blue and gold’s evolution has been different. After all, in his team’s last outing, standout junior guard Matt Bradley returned to the Bears’ rotation after missing five matchups in a row. Though Cal’s leading scorer only put up 11 points on 36% shooting from the field, it is only a matter of getting back into cadence before Bradley finds his pre-injury form.
“He should have been out of rhythm, and he was,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox in a press conference after last Saturday’s loss. “You know, he’s missed three weeks of live play. Getting him back in rhythm and condition is going to be important, but it was nice to have him back.”
With senior forward Grant Anticevich on an upward trend after he returned from appendix surgery and sophomore guard Joel Brown hot off of a career-high 15 points against USC, it appears the squad is coming together as originally intended. Both players combined for 30 points to lead the Bears against the Trojans. Compare that to just 11 total points between the two back in December against Arizona State, and it becomes clear to see how the entire starting five has evolved.
It appears Bradley’s absence forced others to step up and develop more consistent confidence in their own game. A contest not statistically led by Bradley in the beginning of the season would have been a rare occurrence. Only now, after the rest of the team has solidified in the time he was sidelined, can Cal begin to maximize the team’s potential as a whole.
“It’s the first time since, like, October that we’ve had everybody,” Fox said. “Now we have to see if we can develop some continuity within our rotation, but we have some depth now.”
Of course, however, regardless of depth, Bradley plays an integral role in propelling the Bears to victory. When he’s fully healthy and ready to go, the blue and gold will have a budding star at the helm.
There’s no way to know whether that peak performance will return Thursday against Arizona State or Saturday against Arizona. But when it does, fans will know. A skidding Sun Devils team might provide the ideal shot for Bradley to find his own.