Jabari Bird exploded up court, through the lane and laid down this emphatic dunk that caused the crowd at Haas Pavilion to go nuts. At that moment, Cal had a double digit lead midway through the second half and everything seemed to be going their way. At that moment, I sat watching, knowing that this team not only would win, but this could be the game we look back to as the one where the team melded into a tournament bound team.
I think the world (or at least the part of the world that watches NCAA hoops in December) was expecting this game to be about Mamadou Ndiaye. There were a dozen NBA scouts, most of them to see him play against an NCAA Tournament team from a year ago. They were thoroughly disappointed as the 7-foot-6 center was outdone by the much smaller (and less healthy) Richard Solomon.
In fact, Ndiaye played a lowly 10 minutes. He left early in the first half after picking up two early fouls in a 20-second stretch of time. In the second he fouled out with a little more than seven minutes left. Even his pair of dunks couldn’t save the underwhelming performance. Ndiaye ended the night with 4 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks.
The guy who impressed me the most was Solomon. Why? Because while his 13 points weren’t the best on the team (David Kravish scored 19 and had 10 rebounds) he impressed me because he went up against a bigger man and won. Cal will play in the tournament this year; I don’t think there is any real doubt about that. But, the difference between a team playing in the Sweet-Sixteen and getting bounced after the first weekend is being able to nullify the best players on the other team. Solomon, who was still dealing with his eye-injury, was able to out-rebound and out-score a much bigger player.
It wasn’t just Solomon’s performance that led to a shut down of the Irvine offense. The entire team had a night defensively. Irvine, if you recall, came into this game as a team that took high-percentage shots, rarely made mistakes and played unselfishly. Tonight they shot 29% from the field, they turned the ball over 10 times and they were out-matched in the assist column (19-9) by Cal.
Irvine played out of their element and Cal made them pay.
I expected Cal to win, but I expected a close game. Irvine was supposed to have a team that gave Cal enough of a scare to help them grow as a team, but one that eventually lost the game. This was a massacre.
What we saw was a Cal team that played like a team ready to make a run at the Pac-12 championship and maybe even bigger things. And the most impressive thing of all was how unimpressive Justin Cobbs was in his 28 minutes of play. He ended the night with 3 points, 9 assists and 2 turnovers.
Rare are the nights when Cobbs is going to look that bad and still lead Cal to a double-digit win. I think after tonight, Cal has to be a team people start looking at as one who is not to be reckoned with.
Cal improved to 6-2 on the year, and will be taking on UC Santa Barbara on Friday night. Irvine moved to 5-4 and will have to take on a solid Pepperdine team on Saturday.