BERKELEY-Last Saturday, the Cal basketball team saw just what it's like to play in front of a big, raucous crowd, as they downed Iowa State 76-73 in front of 13,284 disappointed Cyclones fans. But, nonetheless, the young Bears stepped up to the challenge.
"It got real physical, and it backed us off for a little while in the first half. Then, we came back out and kind of matched up a little bit," said head coach Mike Montgomery. "We had three key guys with two fouls, we had to set them down a little bit, didn't want them to get a third, but the crowd was really good. The crowd was loud and into it, the students were there and I thought that was a good experience for us."
This bunch hasn't seen much of that kind of crowd, playing in front of an average of 6,948 fans at Haas Pavilion, where they will return tonight to kick off a five-game home stand with a tilt against No. 14 San Diego State in front of-they hope-a sizable throng.
"It was really just like New Mexico when we played at New Mexico; it was really crowded, a lot of noise," said sophomore Bak Bak. "San Diego State is going to be a tough one, a really tough one. But, since we won the Iowa State game, we're just really ready to play San Diego State, and if we play the same way we played in Iowa, I'm pretty sure we can win."
The 8-0 Aztecs are the latest in a string of quality opponents on Cal's schedule, and come into Berkeley one win away from the best start in the program's 89-year history.
"They're very long, they're a good rebounding team, very aggressive defensively. It's a very veteran team," Montgomery said. "D.J. Gay is a senior who has run the club for a couple years and knows how to play, so it's a veteran team that's very capable. Their schedule is very conducive to winning. They're going to have a heck of a preseason record heading into their conference."
When asked if he sees Wednesday's game as an opportunity to make yet another mark on the national scene, even gimpy senior Markhuri Sanders-Frison didn't hesitate.
"Definitely. We're going to come out, ready to go to war like we always do," he said. "We're not going to change anything. We're going to play hard like we always do, we're going to battle like we always do."
Montgomery said that, if one believes the national rankings, San Diego State is the best team that the Bears have faced so far in this young season, and they're not shy about using their size, with six players on the roster that are at least 6-foot-7.
"Their front line is really good," Montgomery said. "Kawhi Leonard, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas are really good. Thomas is a fifth-year senior that went to Pepperdine, and I actually watched him and did some games, and he's a very promising player. He's a shot-blocker. Leonard may be one of the best players on the West Coast, and Billy White's long."
Leonard is averaging 16.3 points and 10.4 rebounds per game and has recorded six double-doubles this season, with a career total of 23. Leonard is also a preseason candidate for the Wooden and Naismith awards and is a two-time Mountain West Player of the Week honoree this year. The plan as of now is to have 6-foot-6, 205-pound true freshman Allen Crabbe defend the 6-foot-7, 225-pounder who represents the Aztecs' top threat.
"He does a few more things every game," Montgomery said of his top newcomer. "He'll get a tough rebound in traffic, he had a couple steals and did some pretty good things. If the match-up is he and Leonard-which would seem logical-he's going to have his hands full. I don't know if that's exactly how we're going to match up, but if it is, he's going to have to figure out how to block off in a hurry. When Leonard gets to the boards, he's pretty good."
The San Diego State front line is not only long, but very athletic. 6-foot-8, 235-pound senior forward White averages 12.6 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 67.1% from the field. 6-foot-9, 220-pound senior forward Thomas averages 9.3 points and 5.9 boards per game and has recorded 10 blocks in the past two games.
"Well, we could try to be more athletic between now and tomorrow; I think that's a good adjustment," Montgomery said, wryly. "You've just got to be sound. You can't turn the ball over out front. That leads to run-outs, which is something that we've had some issues with occasionally and has cost us buckets, but everybody's got to block off. We're going to have to be very diligent at the point of attack, because they will isolate you. Thomas at the block is 6-8, 6-9 and has really long arms, he's very quick, so it'll be a tough match-up. Billy White's 6-8 with really long arms and is kind of a tough match-up, so the point of attack is going to be really important, blocking off is going to be really important and then, they defend very well."
Getting around an Aztecs defense that holds opponents to a 41.1 shooting percentage will require sharpened play at the point guard position, which will likely come from sophomore Brandon Smith, who shot 3-of-5 against Iowa State with three boards, five assists and a steal. The Bears' other point-junior Jorge Gutierrez-shot 3-of-6 with two rebounds, five assists and two steals, but has tried to force the ball at times.
"I thought Brandon had one of his better games on Saturday, for sure," Montgomery said. "He came in, and Jorge's trying to force action a little bit sometimes, but we're able to move Jorge off the ball and when Brandon came in, he controlled the tempo very, very well and made some really nice passes and understood if we didn't have anything and backed off and then allowed us to get organized. I thought if the tempo would have kept going up and down, we probably would have gotten ourselves in trouble against Iowa State, because they got pretty physical. Once we were able to just kind of pass, turn some things down and come back out, it really helped us."
San Diego State has forced 111 turnovers this season, and have almost doubled their opponents' block totals (33-18) while swiping 59 steals.
"They're a good defensive team. They're very long, they close on shooters, so you're going to have to do shot-fakes and you're going to have to make the extra pass," Montgomery said. "Maybe we can establish inside a little bit, depending on how Markhuri's able to go. We've had some success establishing inside a little bit and kind of setting the tempo, but there's nothing different that you can do in two days with whatever athleticism anybody else has and what you have. You've just got to go out and play the game the correct way."
Part of that will be the shooting stroke of Gary Franklin, who, after shooting the lights out the last time the Bears played at home, took a step backwards against the Cyclones, going just 2-of-11 from the field, both of those buckets being treys.
"He's got to learn what a good shot is for him, like anybody," Montgomery said. "Shots don't go in just because. They go in because you're in the right position with good legs, good balance and you've got to be able to do that. I think it's a learning process. I don't like to have kids looking over their shoulders, but, at the same time, you might have to take a kid out. He's not the only one, but there's good shots, bad shots, shots that need to be taken at certain times during games and shots that need to be turned down. I think he's got to learn that."
While San Diego State is gunning for an historic start, the Bears haven't been very polite hosts under Montgomery when it comes to nonconference opponents. Cal has won its past 22 nonconference home games, and 41 of the last 43, despite the empty seats.
"I'm used to it," Montgomery said. "It's the Bay Area in November and December. There is a time when there were big crowds here, but November and December, it's just not the deal. You can list whatever you want, but what's actually there is a different deal."
But the way that this Cal team is playing should start attracting some attention soon, if the Bears keep up. They already have wins over No. 20 Temple, the resurgent Cyclones and NCAA Tournament participant New Mexico, and come in to Wednesday's tilt at 5-2. Defense, Montgomery says, is what's going to keep this team ticking.
"There's something about them, a certain toughness about them, that finds a way to compete," Montgomery said. "I think the big key has been the veteran leadership of Harper (Kamp), Markhuri and Jorge that have kind of allowed the younger players to fit in around them."
Cal has held opponents to a paltry 39.6 shooting percentage from the field, boasts 48 steals and, in the last five games, have held foes to just 26.3% from beyond the arc.
"The kids have gone out each time and figured out what they need to do to compete in the game, and, except for two halves, have been pretty good," Montgomery said. "We've hung in against pretty much everybody. Defensively and from a physical standpoint, we've not backed down against anybody. We didn't make any baskets against Notre Dame, but it wasn't like Notre Dame scored a whole bunch, either. Temple turned around and beat Maryland. The people that we're beating have turned out to be OK; New Mexico has only one loss. So, we've been pretty good, physically, when it comes to competing against people. We're just not a well-oiled unit, yet."
One player who has come on strong of late has been Bak, who came off the bench to score nine points for the Bears last Saturday.
"It was a really big deal for me," Bak said. "Seeing that Markhuri fouled out, I was thinking, 'This has got to be my chance to step up and do something.' At first I didn't really know that I was going to be the first big off the bench, but I knew I was going to play, and I was ready to play."
Bak even hit three straight clutch shots from the charity stripe in the final minute after hitting just one of his previous five attempts from the line this season.
"When I'm playing with Jorge, I don't feel scared or make a lot of turnovers," Bak said. "Jorge's the kind of guy who encourages me a lot, even if I make a mistake. He'll look over at me and say, 'Just forget about it and play.' So, the first time I went into the game, I think I shot the ball and I missed it. I felt bad because I missed the shot and we were down by one point, but he calmed me down and said, 'Hey, we still have a lot of time.' When I see that, I see that my teammates are really encouraging me, so I have to play, for them."
In his last two games, Bak has scored a total of 21 points, come away with two steals and pulled down 11 boards, shooting 9-for-12.
"I think Bak's a big confidence guy," Montgomery said. "I'm probably not real sympathetic about that aspect of guys and so forth, but you know, I think different guys react differently from a confidence perspective as to how they feel about themselves, but after his performance against Davis, I think he all-of-the-sudden felt pretty good about himself and so, I think he was pretty confident. He's one of those kids that probably analyzes it too much in terms of, 'I'm not playing,' or 'I didn't get in until such-and-such,' and he kind of admitted that he just needed to go in and play hard and let the other stuff take care of itself."