BERKELEY -- With just one game left in the regular season, the Cal basketball team -- the same one picked to finish seventh in the conference by the Pac-10 media at the beginning of the campaign -- has willed itself into fourth place, tied with USC. The only hurdle remaining is a Senior Night showdown with eight-place Stanford on Saturday at 4 PM at Haas Pavilion.
"For the rest of this season, we have two guaranteed games left," said senior center Markhuri Sanders-Frison. "Right now, we're just focusing on Stanford. That's our first game and we need to come out with a W. That's our only focus right now. After Saturday, when the buzzer goes off and we have more points than them, then we'll be good."
Even Bears head coach Mike Montgomery admitted that he has been pleasantly surprised with how well his team has done, given the circumstances.
"There might have been some point in time, right around (the last time Cal played the Cardinal), where it was a little difficult to imagine us being 16-13 and 9-8 in league at this point in time, even for me," Montgomery said. "We couldn't afford an injury -- and we only had one (to freshman Allen Crabbe) -- but we knew that our depth was critical when we started the season. We lose two guys -- three, if you throw Max (Zhang) into the mix -- guys that we had not anticipated not having, it made it pretty tough."
Even with the conference tournament on the horizon and a possible berth in the National Invitational Tournament, the Bears are squarely focused on their season finale against the Cardinal (14-14, 7-10 in the Pac-10), when Cal fans will bid farewell for now to Sanders-Frison, who -- barring the Bears hosting an NIT game -- will be playing his final game in Haas Pavilion.
"We know that there are a few options for the teams we might play (in the Pac-10 Tournament), but for me, this game -- the one game against Stanford -- is going to be the most important, because you've got to take care of business," said junior power forward Harper Kamp. "We're at home for the last time. We're going to have Markhuri for the last time here at home. That's going to be a key win."
With a victory on Saturday, Cal will be assured a fourth-place finish in the conference, which means that they won't have to play on the first night of the Pac-10 Tournament. The opening two games on March 9 will pit the No. 8-seed against the No. 9-seed (6 PM) and the No. 7-seed against the No. 10-seed (8:30 PM) at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The last time that the Bears squared off with the Cardinal, Stanford soundly beat them 82-68 at Maples Pavilion in the conference opener on Jan. 2.
"Every college team is better than their first conference game, but I think we're better," Sanders-Frison said.
Cal will have to be better than that first meeting if the Bears hope to finish out the conference schedule with four straight wins.
"I think that we've probably solidified ourselves," Montgomery said. "It's been so long that that game is hard to even imagine. I know we feel like we didn't play very well; I know that we didn't play very hard, and they came out and really put it on us."
In the previous bout, the Cardinal saw four players -- Aaron Bright, Anthony Brown, Jeremy Green and Dwight Powell -- score in double digits, led by 21 from the junior guard Green, who shot 6-of-9 from the field and 4-of-5 from three-point range.
"I think both teams have changed, drastically," Montgomery said. "They've discovered their freshmen. They've got Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell in the starting lineup, though I think that they did that with Powell at their place for one of the first times and got him off the three and played him at the four."
Green has emerged as the leading scorer for Stanford, averaging 16.2 points per game while shooting 41.4 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from three. Over the past three games, Green is averaging 20.3 points per game, shooting 66.7 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three-point land.
"One of our goals last time was to stop or limit him, and we didn't do a good job of it," Kamp said. "There are a lot of great players in this league, and you just have to make it as hard as you can for them. Our guards are going to have to get through screens and our bigs are going to have to be able to show and help on those, without giving up too much to their post guys, as far as good looks and good angles. We'll have our hands full with him."
One of the biggest changes for the Bears since the last bout on The Farm has been the departure of freshman Gary Franklin, who transferred to Baylor soon afterward.
"I think our chemistry is a bit stronger," Kamp said. "That's not to say that it wouldn't be even if Gary were here, but as the season's gone on, we've started to click a little bit better. It kind of forced us to step up and make plays on the court, to define ourselves as a team."
With Franklin on the team, Crabbe averaged 7.4 shots and 8.4 points per game. The last time out against Stanford, he was 3-of-6 from the floor and 1-of-4 from three for seven points. Since Franklin departed, Crabbe is averaging 11.4 shots and 16.5 points per game, emerging as the leading candidate for Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors.
Crabbe's ability to score the ball has opened up the floor for point guard Brandon Smith and shooting guard Jorge Gutierrez. Smith is averaging 7.4 points and 4.8 assists per game (third in the Pac-10) while shooting 16-of-32 (50 percent) from beyond the arc in conference play, while Gutierrez leads the Bears in conference scoring (16.6 points per game) and is second in the Pac-10 in assists with 4.9 per contest.
"From a personal standpoint, I know it helps me out. Guys can't just collapse inside on me and Markhuri," Kamp said of having Crabbe come into his own as a scorer. "They have to respect guys like Allen as a shooter, and we've got other guys that are shooting the ball well now, too. Brandon's been hitting some big shots lately, and Jorge can hit the outside shots. Allen has definitely come into his own, and he's helped us a lot."
In his senior season, Sanders-Frison has had to fight through some mild tendonitis and a persistent case of plantar fasciitis in both feet to average 11.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game -- both career highs.
"Based on last year, I would say he's been better than expected," Montgomery said. "Last year, because he was hurt, you didn't know what you were going to get. You knew he was a physical presence, but he's been pretty steady down inside. He was not a double-figure scorer in JC, I don't think."
One of Sanders-Frison's most deadly weapons has been the nigh-unstoppable baby hook that he has perfected this year.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," laughed Montgomery.
Even in practice, few have been able to block that baby hook. Kamp said that he's tried many times, to no avail. Only 6-foot-10 freshman Richard Solomon and 6-foot-10 sophomore Robert Thurman have accomplished that feat.
"I think Richard has gotten it a few times in practice, and Big Rob," Sanders-Frison said. "They know. I think that's about it, knock on wood. Hopefully it doesn't get blocked."
Using that shot that -- even 17 games into the conference schedule -- has yet to be effectively shut down, Sanders-Frison is shooting a conference-best 61.1 percent from the floor.
"I'm still trying to figure that out," laughed Sanders-Frison. "I still haven't realized that. I just keep going to it. My dad told me, 'Don't fix it if it's not broken,' so I just keep on going, and the coaches just tell me to keep going to it.
"I just work at it. It's my specialty. My grandma has her special recipe, and this is mine, right there, that left-hand hook shot. That's my baby, my best friend."
While Montgomery has been surprised by the kind of scorer that Sanders-Frison has turned into, the big fella knew he had it in him all along.
"I expected that because I put in lots and lots and lots of time in the summer, and I've always been able to score the ball. I don't think this efficiently -- I'm really surprised by that," Sanders-Frison said. "I've always worked on my game, and I've always felt that, if need be, I could put the ball in the hole. That always wasn't my role on the team, and I accept my role for whatever team I'm on."
This year, that role has been not only as a scorer, but also as a leader. Sanders-Frison gives all the credit to the coaching staff for bringing both of those aspects out of him.
"I think, with Coach Montgomery being the head honcho, and the assistants letting us know, 'That's not a good shot. That's not your shot, that's your shot,' has given us confidence, and also the freedom to be able to play our games," Sanders-Frison said. "I think that helps us out a lot. When the coaches give you confidence, it makes the players play even harder, diving for loose balls and stuff like that. Players know -- you're a hustle player, you're a rebounder, you're a scorer, you're both, you're leaders -- everybody knows. The coaches have done a great job of letting us know what they expect out of each and every one of us."
While Sanders-Frison has been as reliable as the sunrise, the Cardinal have been anything but. Even with that big win over the Bears at the beginning of the year, Stanford has lost by as many as 33 points at Butler and by 23 points to the Trojans in Los Angeles, when the Cardinal scored just 42 points. Stanford has lost four straight games on two occasions this year, from Jan. 15-27 and from Feb. 12-24.
"Stanford's a good basketball team. They're better than probably they've been given credit for," Montgomery said. "It was kind of a woe-is-me deal with all the freshmen, but if you look at it, getting (Josh) Owens back was huge for them. He's a fourth-year junior and a very good player, very explosive. Green was an all-conference player and a starter. (Jarrett) Mann was a starter. They've got some guys. The young freshmen were very highly thought-of, and now that they've got some time, he's done a really good job of integrating those kids in to where Powell and Brown are very crucial and Bright gives them a real good scoring threat at the point and (Josh) Huestis has come in. They're engaged, and they've got those freshmen now that know what it takes to win."
The Bears certainly don't intend on keeping to the play-one-half strategy that, while effective in their road sweep in Oregon, is less than ideal.
"No, no, no. Coach doesn't like it. We don't like it," Sanders-Frison said. It's winning us games, but we're going to put an end to that on Saturday, definitely. We were just not playing hard. We just have to come with that second-half energy in the first half. If we could play 40 minutes of that, I think we're going to be really good."
The departures of Omondi Amoke, Max Zhang, D.J. Seeley and Franklin have taken their toll on the length of the Cal bench, which has led to Montgomery going to more zone defense, with the occasional switch to man to spark some energy. That lack of depth, Sanders-Frison opined, could have led to the late-game surges that have become so commonplace.
"I think that was why we were doing so much zone and stuff like that," Sanders-Frison said. "It's helped us, and we're doing well in the zone, but I think Saturday, we're going to get after them."
By the Numbers
The Cardinal rank dead last in the conference in assists (11.6 per game), while Gutierrez and Smith alone account for 8.5 per game for the Bears. Stanford is also last in the Pac-10 in steals (4.9 per game) and ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.9 helpers to every turnover). Cal's ratio is third in the conference, at 1.1 assists to every turnover.
With a 66.4-point scoring average, the Cardinal rank ninth in the Pac-10 in scoring offense, while the Bears sit at fourth, averaging 72.8 points per game. Having played 12 games decided by five points or less, though, Cal is allowing an average of 72.2 points per game -- ninth in the conference. Stanford's defense has been far better, holding opponents to an average of 64.7 points, good for second in the Pac-10.
There is not much separation between the two squads as far as field goal percentage. Buoyed by Sanders-Frison's baby left hook, the Bears are fifth in the conference, shooting 45.9 percent from the floor. The Cardinal are shooting 43.2 percent, good for seventh.
From three-point range, both Cal and Stanford are shooting 35.8 percent, with the Bears coming out ahead by 0.074 percentage points to snag third place in the Pac-10.
As far as defending the three, the Cardinal are last in the conference, allowing opponents to hit 37.5 percent of their long balls. The Bears aren't much better, coming in eighth with a 36.2 opponents' shooting percentage from beyond the arc.
Sanders-Frison will be bringing his mother, father and older sister out onto the court for the Senior Night festivities, and got to play in front of aunts, uncles and his grandmother up in Oregon, so he's definitely gotten his farewell tour in.
"That was my first road sweep since I've been here, so that was good. In Oregon, that made it even better," Sanders-Frison said. ""It was mainly the older family - my grandma, my aunts, uncles, my father, my mother, older sister. All the little ones are going to come out for graduation. Can't afford both. I'd rather the younger ones see graduation."
Sanders-Frison will walk across the stage at the Hearst Greek Theater in May, but will still have two summer courses left to complete his degree. He will begin that work on May 24, aiming to finish by July.
At graduation, he'll have quite a cheering section, including his niece, nephew, parents, all five of his sisters -- ranging in age from five years-old to 27 -- and his two adopted brothers, aged 18 and 13. With such a full house growing up, Sanders-Frison joked that dinnertime was akin to a scrum for a rebound underneath the basket.
"They were very excited when I left," chuckled the jolly center. "I would box them out at the dinner table. No mercy, either."
Reflecting on his short time in Berkeley, Sanders-Frison waxed nostalgic about his two seasons.
"It's crazy. Time went by really fast. My time here has surpassed my expectations," he said. "It's just been a great chapter in my life, and it's meant a lot to me. I've grown a lot here, and I love the people here, especially my teammates, the coaching staff and the trainers -- they've helped me out a lot, and I've spent a lot of time with them.
"I knew that the time was going to go by fast, but it feels like I was just playing with Pat (Christopher) and Jamal (Boykin), Jerome (Randle) and them. It feels like just a week ago. It's my turn to have my own senior night, and it's going to be fun. It's going to be exciting, very emotional."
Montgomery said that Solomon could fill the low-post roll now inhabited by Sanders-Frison, but he still has some growing to do. But no matter how much muscle he packs on, he will be a different type of player than the big-bodied senior.
"He's got a lot of potential -- that's a bad word -- but he's got a lot of chance to be a good player if he solidify some things and get consistent on some things," Montgomery said. "He needs to get stronger and he needs to get a little tougher in there, but I think that he's made great progress this year to where he's helping us quite a bit right now."
In practice, Thurman -- who has played just 18 minutes in seven games this year -- has started to open some eyes, and may see his role expand either during the postseason or -- more likely -- next season.
"I think Robert's made some progress," Montgomery said. "There's been discussions with Robert -- a little bit like with Jeff Powers -- that he's been doing some things in practice that you start saying, 'Well, maybe we need to get Robert a chance in there.' He's certainly big enough and strong enough. It's just a question of what he'd do in a game, and we really don't have the luxury of finding that out right now."