2014 NIT Preview: No. 7 Utah Valley vs No. 2 California: Wolverines With Too Much To Bear?

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

The Wolverines must travel to the Bay Area for the first game of the NIT to face a formidable California squad.

What to watch for: Utah Valley

The Wolverines aren't particularly strong on the road against non-WAC schools. Over the course of the season they were 0-6 in non-conference road games and 6-2 in conference road games. During those six non-conference road losses, Utah Valley's main problems were its inability to get shots to fall and how often it turned the ball over.

Holton Hunsaker, the playmaker for the Wolverines, has a propensity for turning the ball over despite being a four-year starter at Utah Valley. Fortunately for them, California is not known for its ability to force turnovers, which means all the Wolverines have to do is play smart and not throw the ball away (easier said than done, of course).

Additionally, Cal is 274th in three-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot 36.2 percent from downtown. Utah Valley would be wise to take more threes, at least early on in the game, in order to spread out Cal's defense and allow for some penetration inside.

On defense, the Wolverines will need to make sure they focus their defense around the interior. Beyond Ricky Kreklow and Jordan Mathews, the Golden Bears really don't have any three-point shooters to fear. They could stand to sag off the others in order to prevent the rest of the team from getting the ball inside easily.

If Utah Valley can keep the turnovers down, make its threes, and clog the paint with defenders, it could pull off an upset in the Bay Area.

What to watch for: California

California should be expected to win this game if things go smoothly. The Golden Bears were the first team to knock off the then-undefeated Arizona Wildcats, and they've also had wins against Oregon and Colorado, both of which made the NCAA Tournament. Their one bad loss was on the road against UCSB, who is still likely a better team than Utah Valley.

However, anything can happen. Obviously this game is not unwinnable for the Wolverines. Cal, as a matter of fact, is on a downward trend having lost four of their last five, and their only win during that stretch was an overtime nail-biter. During those losses, Cal had trouble getting extra possessions and ended up with less shots attempted than their opponents. Given Hunsaker's habit of turning the ball over, Cal might try to focus their defense on harassing him so he'll do exactly that.

Because the Golden Bears are not very efficient on the offensive glass, their only real shot at generating extra possessions comes via the turnover.

Player to watch for: Utah Valley

The player to watch for here is freshman forward Mitch Bruneel. The team usually succeeds when he does, and fails when he fails. He is also the team's best three-point shooter among the starting five, which means he'll probably need to be the one taking the threes early on if they want to beat Cal. It's a lot of pressure to put on the freshman, which is what makes it such a difficult task to pull off.

Player to watch for: California

The player to watch here is Justin Cobbs, the senior point guard. Cobbs is a steady playmaker, but he's more of a slasher than a shooter. Cobbs leads the team in points with 15.8 ppg and also has an 81.9 free throw rate. Fouling him regularly would certainly spell disaster and the Wolverines need to work to keep him out of the lane so that he isn't able to do the kind of damage he is capable of doing.

Prediction

In the end, Cal really doesn't lose to upset-hopefuls, especially not at home. The Golden Bears are quite talented, and while the Wolverines definitely have a shot, I don't know how likely it is they'll pull of the upset. I see Cal winning this one rather easily by a score of 86-67.

It's been a great season for the Wolverines, and even if they do get blown out I hope coach Dick Hunsaker is proud of his team for even being here right now.

Game Details

Who: No. 7 Utah Valley and No. 2 California

When: 7:30 PT/10:30 ET on Wednesday, March 19

Where to watch: ESPN3

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