BERKELEY, Calif. – California guard Justin Cobbs hasn’t played in the Big Ten for three years, but he still knows his old conference.
Cobbs, who started his college career at Minnesota, was asked about the difference between the Pac-12 and Big Ten on Tuesday. He didn’t see a major contrast in talent, just in the style of play, especially with how the game is called.
“It’s more physical,” Cobbs said. “The refs aren’t calling anything, so they are letting you play and beat you up down there. That’s just how it is.”
His words proved to be incredibly prophetic. Hours later, no foul would be called despite contact on the drive by Ohio State guard Aaron Craft at the end of overtime in a 76-74 loss at Michigan.
“It builds you to become a different type of player,” Cobbs had said of Big Ten officiating. “It’s funny just watching it because I think a lot of times to myself what it would be like if I was still at Minnesota.”
But instead of facing the likes of Craft and the Wolverines’ Trey Burke, Cobbs has his hands full with Arizona State freshman Jahii Carson on Thursday (6:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), followed by senior Mark Lyons of Arizona.
Cal head coach Mike Montgomery said the presence of Carson and Lyons, who earned his degree at Xavier and became immediately eligible to transfer and play at another school, has elevated the Sun Devils (17-5, 6-3 Pac-12) and Wildcats to new heights.
“They haven’t really had a point guard,” Montgomery said of Arizona State. “They have had some talent, but they really haven’t had that guy that can run it for them. If you can get a guy that can make other players better, get in the paint, can penetrate, then you’re generally off to a pretty good start.”
The same goes for Arizona, as Lyons scored a season-high 25 points and added six assists in a 73-66 home win over Stanford on Wednesday.
“Had they not added Lyons you would wonder who runs the point for them,” Montgomery said. “He comes and all of a sudden is one of their better players and kind of solidified them.”
Their presence makes Cobbs, who usually defends the opponent’s primary ball handler, that much more important for Cal (13-8, 5-4 Pac-12).
“You always accept the challenge as a competitor, as a basketball player,” Cobbs said. “It’s fun to have the key matchup, which is Jahii and Mark.”
Cobbs turned in one of his best defensive performances of the season last Saturday in the upset of then-No. 10 Oregon with three steals and helping force the Ducks into 22 turnovers as he overwhelmed their guards.
He will have to deliver another strong performance to contain Carson, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound sensation from Mesa (Ariz.) who is averaging 20.1 points and 4.9 assists per game in conference play.
The speedy Carson has shown he can drive into the paint on any possession. When defenders converge, he can drop the ball off to junior center Jordan Bachynski for easy shots or pass it out for open three-pointers.
Staying in front of Carson at all times will be Cobbs’ top priority.
“Just play him straight up. Just don’t let him get to the basket,” Cobbs said. “When he gets to the basket, that’s when he starts distributing and getting everybody involved, gets the crowd into it.”
Cobbs hopes to use his size and strength to lean on Carson, if the always-shaky Pac-12 officials let him.
“In the Big Ten, they get away with those things, maybe a little bump and things like that,” Cobbs said.
“I don’t want to blame anybody, but I’m just saying if they called it equal and let us get the few bumps, I think basketball from the West Coast to the East Coast would be practically even.”
In this case, however, Cobbs would be content to show off a little Big Ten superiority.
Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.