By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, CA–Cal fans showed up, and Coach Mark Fox left early. Talk about both being out of character.
No. 3 Arizona has a way of leaving opponents, and others, twisted. The Wildcats are that good, that devastating, reference their wire-to-wire, 96-71 win on Sunday afternoon at Haas Pavilion.
“If you look at the completeness of their team with multiple bigs, terrific shooting, an outstanding wing, depth, they are playing like the best team,” Fox admitted. “Their margins of victory.. like today was obviously big, but that’s what it’s been. They’ve been dominant.”
Arizona (16-1,6-0) hit the gas so quickly, skid marks could be seen near the Haas entry ways. They led 17-3, 34-16 and 46-26 a minute after Fox lost his composure, drawing a second technical and an ejection. Cal’s Jordan Shepherd missed his first seven shots, and the Bears misfired on five attempts from distance, part of 7 for 30 shooting to start that left them in a big hole.
“It’s what you hope for on the road, that you come out and from start to finish your team is solid and they execute the plan,” first-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “We did a really good job of dictating what they were doing on the offensive end, and then on our end of the floor getting into our movement.”
Talent? The Wildcats have it abundance. Their top eight scorers–with Bennedict Mathurin (17.3 ppg) leading, and Pelle Larsson (6.4) trailing–are all capable of big scoring nights, when needed, on demand. Against Cal, Mathurin struggled (3 of 9 from the floor) as Christian Koloko took over the paint (19 points, 13 rebounds) in the absence of 6′ 11″ Azoulas Tubelis, Arizona’s second leading scorer. Larsson got a turn in the starting lineup and was impressive on both ends. He finished with nine points and two assists in 21 minutes.
Cal’s shrewd plan to get Shepherd going from the perimeter first to then provide space for Andre Kelly and opportunities for Grant Anticevich was immediately foiled. Arizona’s length at the guard spots and quick feet defensively bothered Cal like 16 Wildcats opponents were bothered before.
With assistant Chris Harriman directing the club, the Bears benefitted from Arizona’s careless ball handling to open the second half, but the visitors’ transition game kicked in and Cal trailed 66-40 with 12:56 remaining.
Shepherd led Cal (9-10, 2-6) with 21 points, rebounding from his scoreless start. Kelly and Makale Foreman added eight points each.
The Bears have dropped five straight, three straight at home, with three, tough road games to follow. The Bears have yet to win a road game this season, losing all four to date.
UCLA looms as Cal’s next opponent on Thursday, the Bears’ opportunity to display all the wisdom gleaned from a 60-52 loss on January 8 in Berkeley. The problem is the No. 9 Bruins aren’t coming off a three-week break due to COVID this time, and are unlikely to start sluggishly playing at home.
WE STAYED. COACH YOU HAVE TO STAY TOO: All season, coach Mark Fox has wanted to combine his team’s hustle and flow with an intimidating, loud Haas Pavilion atmosphere. COVID has disrupted his plans, from the canceled and rescheduled games to the stringent vaccination requirements for fans in the building.
Sunday’s gathering of 7,582 represented a breakthrough for attendance this season, despite the hastily arranged gametime layered on top of some pretty, compelling nationally-televised NFL games. But when the game turned lopsided soon after it began, the fans never got a chance to make their presence felt.
Fox had his hand on the proceedings, but he let the referees get involved contrary to the coach’s better judgment.
“My frustration wasn’t just about tonight. My frustration was (about) some things that built up to it,” he said. “The official decided, like in third grade, to instigate a staring contest and, like in third grade, I took the bait and got my second technical and put our team in a tough spot.”
Fox picked up his initial technical two minutes before the second. Afterwards, he framed his actions as positive, saying “if I have to lead the fight, sign me up.”
Others might say his actions weren’t a sign of leadership. Regardless of how his actions were perceived, he’s got two bigger issues, only one that enhances his future in Berkeley: he’s maintained team unity and focus under the most trying of circumstances, but Fox has not reached the baseline for recruiting in a conference driven by talent as much as exemplary coaching.