With Cal coming to Kemper Arena on Saturday, the young Kansas team will get to face another opponent of relatively equal ability featuring a player considerably better than anyone else on the floor. Nick Fazekas and Chet Stachitas both demonstrated an ability to make shots which no Kansas player can yet match, allowing both Nevada and St. Joseph’s to overcome their lackluster defensive performances.
There is no doubt that Leon Powe is a better NBA prospect than is Nick Fazekas, but I’m not sure that he’s demonstrably more effective in the college game. It’ll be tough for Powe to have a better game in Kemper than Fazekas had in the Fieldhouse, but I wouldn’t bet against Powe similarly bedeviling Kansas’ post players.
Though 6-1, Cal’s body of work isn’t hugely impressive. They lost their only road game, the season opener at E. Michigan, 67-65. Neither Powe nor Ray Benson played in that game, but E. Michigan followed up that win by getting blown out at North Dakota St. and losing at home to Detroit. Even accounting for circumstance, it wasn’t a good start to the year for Cal.
The Bears then returned home and have won six straight games there against a collection of patsies, the best of whom is probably Northeastern (#81—Pomeroy, #75—Sagarin). I hesitate to downgrade those wins too drastically as the Bears haven’t been very healthy. Powe and Benson have both missed 4 games. Jordan Wilkes has missed 3 games (and is, at the time of this writing, expected to miss the game against Kansas), and starting guard Richard Midgley missed an early game as well.
Powe’s return appears to have seriously impacted Cal’s offense. The Bears had an eFG% of 52.5% without Powe. They’ve bumped that up to 59.6% since his return. Powe’s personal eFG% of 64% has certainly helped but, interestingly, Cal began shooting and making a lot more threes upon Powe’s return. Without Powe, 27% of their field goal attempts were three-pointers and they made 36% of them. With Powe, 35.7% of their field goal attempts come from behind the arc and they’re making 44.6% of those. Powe’s presence on the court is difficult to deal with in and of itself, but also appears to open things up for guards Midgley and Ayinde Ubaka who take almost two-thirds of Cal’s threes.
It will be incumbent upon the Kansas defenders not to help off of shooters as they did in the second half against St. Joseph’s. Powe and his frontcourt mates, DeVon Hardin and Benson, will be a handful for Kaun, Giles, Wright, and Moody but they can only score two points at a time. (Or less than that: none of the three big Bears are especially good free throw shooters.)
Kansas can probably withstand an onslaught of points from Powe as long as they keep the rest of the Bears under wraps (assuming Powe doesn’t foul out Kansas’ entire rotation of bigs) because Cal has struggled to force their opponents into missing shots. E. Michigan shot 67.7% (season average 52.6%) from the field. Akron shot 60% (season average 52.6%) and Northeastern 57.7% (season average 56.4%) both in Haas Pavilion. The Bears have survived these shooting performances by forcing turnovers (26.5% of opponents’ possessions) and keeping their opponents off the free throw line. The Bears are giving up only 21 FTA/100 FGA, 10th best in the nation. Cal’s ability to force turnovers might pose a problem for the Jayhawks, but being kept off the foul line may not be a bad thing.
Like St. Joe’s, Cal grades out in my informal system as about six points better than Kansas before taking into account the relative levels of competition. Cal’s field goal defense has been even worse than St. Joseph’s was prior to the Kansas game, but Cal has been stronger (statistically) than St. Joe's in the other defensive areas of import (forcing turnovers, rebounding, and free throw attempts allowed). Cal also has Leon Powe. One of these days, the young Jayhawks will convert a couple more of their offensive opportunities and win a close game. I hope that happens on Saturday but I can’t quite commit to its likelihood.
Prediction: California 76 Kansas 73