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August 20, 2011

Bears prepare for two against Danes



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MORE EUROTRIP: Taking the Show on the Road | Kamp Emerges as a Leader

At 5 PM local time (8 AM Pacific), the California basketball team will kick off the first of two games against the Danish National Team, the fourth of five games on the Bears' European swing this summer.

For junior point guard Brandon Smith -- who averaged 6.4 points and 3.9 assists per game last season, spending 29.4 minutes per game on the floor in 33 contests (22 starts) -- the trip is far from his first jaunt overseas.

"I've been to France, been to India, been to China and Hong Kong," said Smith, a mere two days before Cal departed on the trip. "I was doing ministry. My dad, he's a full-time evangelist, so he travels around the world and speaks to different churches and events, so each of those times, my dad was speaking at a church over there or an event, so we went with him."

During the travels of his youth, Smith was exposed to a variety of cultures and customs, which helped the then-De La Salle standout broaden his horizons.

"It's a unique experience, because you see a lot of similarities in the way that they act, and you see a lot of differences. Similarities in that people are all striving to be great, people all striving to have significance and influence. But, when you go to places like India, and you're in the slums, it's really a life-changing experience, because you see these kids with absolutely nothing. They're on the street, begging for food, and you see people living in the streets. The city we went to, Chennai, I want to say it's the fourth-most populous city in the entire world, so there are millions of people there. It's literally a city that never sleeps. I walked out of my hotel, it was about 4 AM in the morning, and there was just people, you would have thought it was four in the afternoon."

Smith went to India in 2008, as a senior in high school. About to embark on his own personal journey to college, the realities of life in other nations hit Smith square in the face. "I'm reminded of that old St. Augustine quote," says Smith. "He goes, 'There is so much poverty in our riches.' I came back home, and there was more of a desire to give to others, and not just accumulate a bunch of possessions for myself."

The more assists he gets, then, the better, because it really is all about giving, in the end.

"It really is," Smith chuckles. "That's what makes life worth something. Then, when we went to Hong Kong, the culture there, I really liked that city, because it's real American. A lot of people speak English, it's very clean, very safe, the skyline there is amazing. Best skyline in the world, the Peak. France, it was cool being able to go to different places. I was in Tony Parker's old hometown. We did go to Paris. Being able to see the Eiffel Tower, you see all these black and white pictures, and I have one in my room, being able to see all that kind of stuff, to see different people, it just really expands your world view."

That isn't to say that some of the more light-hearted international stereotypes didn't creep their way in, as the Bears prepared for their 10-day, five-game gauntlet.

"I'm curious, because I know the game is going to be different. I've been told that the guys over there flop a lot, and I've been told that they're soft, and so, that was just inside talk from somebody -- I won't mention his name -- but we'll see if his assessment was right," Smith laughs. "I'm trying not to be so physical. I know they're a little bit more finesse over there, so I don't want to get a bunch of offensive fouls."

So far in three games across the pond, Smith is averaging 11.3 points per game as he splits time at the one with the now-eligible -- and more physical -- Justin Cobbs. The two are quite the pair, both disarmingly easy with a laugh and gregarious to a fault. Even in the heat of what is expected to be an intense competition for playing time, both Cobbs and Smith have remained close.

"You know what, it's good. It's kind of one of those things that lights a fire in you," says Smith. "I always do better under pressure. I've always held that belief - as far as when it comes to my game - and I think when it comes to this, it's cool, because it's competition. I'm having to rise to the occasion. There are some things that I have that kind of put me at an advantage, with last year, the minutes played, the experience and him having to sit out a year. I respect his game. We're lifting partners in the weight room, so we get to compete against each other every day, push each other."

While the highlight of Smith's trip so far on the floor has been a 17-point performance in a 76-74 nail-biter against Uppsala Basket, what he looked forward to the most before departing the United States was spending time with his teammates.

"I'm just looking forward to the team bonding experience," says Smith. "I was talking with Randy Duck, an alumnus here, and he went to go play overseas a couple years. He's back, and he has this facility out near my house. I'll go over to his gym and lift and put some shots up and stuff, and he was saying, 'You know what, that was my favorite trip ever, as a Cal basketball player,' when they went to Italy. He had so much fun. He said, 'Take as many pictures as you can, seriously. You'll always look back and you'll always remember,' so he was challenging me just to soak it up. Because, he said, 'This is going to put you guys at an advantage over every team.' So, I'm looking forward to the team bonding, in the games, off the court, sight seeing, on the bus, all of those moments."

Whether it's because of the extra bonding or because of the additional practice time, historically, teams that make overseas trips see bumps in win totals the following season. A report by The Sporting News found that a random sampling of 27 teams that took their trips between 2006 and 2010 showed an average win increase of two victories over the previous season.

Teams that took trips between 2006 and 2009 won an average of 22 games, again, two more than in the preceding season. Teams that traveled last summer averaged 23.3 wins in the 2010-11 season, up from 21.1 in 2009-10. Last season, teams that made the NCAA Tournament won an average of 23.9 games during the regular season and conference tournaments. A total of seven teams made the Big Dance with 19 or fewer wins. Cal won 17 before reaching the second round of the National Invitation Tournament. If that two-game increase trend holds true, those two wins -- be they due to more experience, better chemistry or both -- could very well mean that this trip may indeed be the difference in the Bears making it to March Madness.

"This time last year, we had a lot of guys hurt. It was very easy to get out of open gym. But, this year, we're having practice with guys being there," says Smith. "Four days a week we're lifting. Two days a week we're conditioning. It's like we've started the season in July. I think that is only to our benefit, just because guys are already focused. During the summer, there's a lot going on, and, granted, I mean, you still enjoy your summer, but there's a focus that I haven't seen this early and going this hard, ever, in our team, so it's pretty cool."

The biggest adjustment that Smith has had to make has in fact not been to the mask that sophomore Allen Crabbe has had to don thanks to a broken nose during tryouts for the Under-19 US National Team. It's been to the pace of play.

"I feel bad for him," Smith laughs. "He says it kind of throws off his game and his depth perception, but he got a new mask. He was playing better with it. The old one had some padding before, but this one is straight on his face, so I think his depth perception is a little bit better now. It's all clear now.

"I think the biggest adjustment has been the shot clock, playing with 24 seconds. It's the NBA shot clock," says Smith. "It's like, hey, you don't have anything. You're almost in the late clock, so it's, 'Hey, pick and roll! Five, come get me,' and you're breaking it down, you're creating something. There will be a lot more points scored, I think, just because you get a lot more shots up."

The first three games have borne that out. Cal averaged 72.5 points per game during the 2010-11 season, and over the first three games in Europe, the Bears have scored 76.3 points.

They will need all the points they can muster against the Danish National Team. The last national team Cal faced was Norway, which edged the Bears 69-64 on Aug. 17 in Rykkinn, Norway.

Cal will conclude its slate on Aug. 21 at 1 PM local time (4 AM Pacific) with a second game against the Danes at Farum Arena Stavnsholtvej 41.



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