BERKELEY -- When this season started, the Cal basketball team was picked to finish as low as seventh in the Pac-10. With two true freshmen in the starting lineup and just two players returning who played anything resembling significant minutes in 2010 -- and no starters from a Pac-10 Championship lineup -- the Bears were not predicted to do much of anything other than rebuilding.
Now, Cal is tied for fourth in the conference -- something that only injured true freshman Alex Rossi predicted would happen. Not too shabby for a bunch of kids. Throw in a triple-overtime, 107-105 thriller at home last Saturday against No. 15 Arizona, and the Bears (13-10, 6-5 in the Pac-10) have opened plenty of eyes.
"Gosh, they played their butts off," said head coach Mike Montgomery. "I don't think anybody walked out saying, 'Jeez, we should have played harder.' We made some mistakes, and they're well-aware of that. I told them that I'd never say anything to anybody for making a human mistake. We all do that. I said that there are some things, mentally, that we need to get better at, and we've talked about a little bit of those, but we'll get that with experience. We didn't defend as well as probably we would have liked, but we sure scored the ball."
After going 3-1 during the four-game home stand and winning four of its last five, Cal will play four of its final seven games on the road, starting with a 6 PM Thursday tilt up north in Seattle against Washington (15-7, 7-4) at Alaska Airlines Arena, one of the most hostile gyms in the conference.
"I think they're a team that gets a lot of confidence from their crowd. I think if you look around the league, probably their students and what they've created, I thought we had that a while back at the other place (Stanford), where it was a tough place to come in, and they just play well at home," Montgomery said. "They seem to play with a lot more confidence. They seem to be -- I know they play more aggressive. They attack more and they're physical and seemingly get away with a little bit more at home. The crowd gets involved and every time there's a call, it's met with not much enthusiasm. So, they just have been way more aggressive at home, and the crowds have typically been good, the students have gotten involved and gotten behind the whole thing, so it's turned into a real good home-court advantage."
The Bears will battle a team that dealt them a 21-point beating at Haas Pavilion on Jan. 16, and one which dealt last season's eventual Pac-10 champion a 84-69 defeat exactly one year prior.
"They have great fan support. Last year it was just a great atmosphere and we really didn't come to play," said senior Cal center Markhuri Sanders-Frison. "They jumped on us from the start. I feel that we need to jump on them early. We have to quiet the crowd as much as possible, but it's pretty hard up there to quiet their crowd. I think we just have to sustain and we have to make plays."
The last time these two squared off, Washington saw three players score 20 or more points, including 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who went off for 22 points on 10-of-15 shooting and 2-of-3 from the free-throw line while pulling down 11 boards and blocking two shots.
"Amaning has really improved in the time he's been there," Montgomery said. "He's a quality post guy now. He's big and strong, he gets low and he gets physical. A lot of times, you're left one-on-one with him, which is exactly what you want with the good post guys, because you can't afford to help off of anybody else because they shoot the ball so well. He beat us down the floor on the break, which we talked about, but I'm not sure we understood how fast he gets down the floor."
Sanders-Frison should be more prepared to face off against Bryan-Amaning, as the plantar fasciitis in both of his feet has gotten better as of late, though still not 100 percent healed.
"They're coming along," Sanders-Frison said. "Still a little bit of pain. They're coming along. I deal with them a lot better than I was at first."
Even though Sanders-Frison will have to contend with one of the more mobile big men in the league, but he's nothing if not prepared.
"Run the court, just run the court. He runs the court better than any big in the conference right now. It's running the court, staying on my feet and if he has a first good move and he has me, I just have to give it up, especially early. I've been working on that a little bit, trying my best. The zone is helping, yes and no. I get more guard fouls when they penetrate, but we've been working on that a lot and we have a lot of confidence going into the game on Thursday."
Bryan-Amaning is averaging 15.7 points per game overall -- second on the team only to the dynamic Isaiah Thomas -- and 17.5 per game in conference play, a figure good for fourth in the Pac-10. He is fifth in the conference in shooting percentage (56.7 percent), fifth in rebounding (7.9 per game) and third in blocked shots (1.6 per game).
"He's not faster than anybody else, but he really runs and he beats people down the floor, gets a lot of the easy stuff, so we've got to make sure that we are aware of that. At the same time, Thomas on the break is really hard to get stopped."
The Huskies' real headliner, of course, is Thomas. The last time out, Thomas scored a game-high 27 points on 8-of-16 shooting from the floor, 3-of-9 from three-point land and 8-of-8 from the charity stripe while dishing out 13 assists, swiping two steals and pulling down four boards.
"The truth of the matter is that, last time, Isaiah Thomas was the show," Montgomery said. "13 assists and 27 points, he accounted for 50-some points himself. He's got good shooters. They've got a pretty good scheme in that they surround a good big guy with shooters. Then, you've got the one kid who can really penetrate."
Washington's other chief scoring option is Justin Holiday, who torched Cal for 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting and 5-of-8 from three-point land.
Even with their bevy of scoring options, the Huskies have fallen in each of their past three games -- all coming on the road -- against Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State.
"I'd like to shoot it like Oregon did," Montgomery said. "They shot lights-out, I mean, they just shot the heck out of the thing, and the confidence that people are getting at home in shooting the ball, they probably would prefer to get up and down in a fast-paced game and they'd probably prefer you to play man and all that kind of thing, but the only thing you can take from it is that they're not unbeatable, if you go and do the things that you're capable of doing. But, we can also remember that they're very difficult to beat."
Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar has cited his team's losing streak as the result of an inability to focus on defense.
"When you lose three in a row people are going to ask, 'What's wrong with the Huskies?'" said Romar, whose team has fallen to third place in the conference "It's a fair question to ask."
To try and get out of their defensive funk -- having allowed an average of 78.7 points per game in each of their past three losses -- the Huskies have alternated between man defense and zone.
"We're not a zone team, but at times it allows us to separate," Romar said. "But, we prefer to play man."
Recently, the Bears have been able to get some separation and have improved on the break, outscoring opponents 33-27 over their past five games. But, running the break too often could prove tenuous given Cal's lack of depth compared with Washington's.
"We've got to take advantage of the break, if we have it. I've not given in to just being a walk-it-up team," Montgomery said. "I don't want to do that and kids don't want to play that way. We've got to take advantage of the break if we can, but at the same time, we've got to use good judgment. There maybe a time when you're tired and this is where a veteran point guard kind of sees what's going on and he says, 'You know what, let's rest here on offense a little bit. Let's take some time, because this pace is going to get to us.' So, you may back off a break or two. You never turn down a high-percentage shot, but you may back off a break and slow down and let everybody take a deep breath, because you really can't afford to do that on defense."