BERKELEY-This Saturday, the Cal basketball team will return to action for the first time since its heartbreaking, last-second loss to Southern Miss on Sunday, renewing a series with Cal Poly (3-6) which has lain dormant for seven years.
"They lost to San Diego State by six (Monday) night, and they played UCLA to a seven-point [sic] game," said Bears head coach Mike Montgomery of the Mustangs. "They are likely to pack you in a zone. They try to protect themselves, although I don't know that our bigs would scare them necessarily like maybe UCLA's, but they'll pack a zone in."
The one big that Cal Poly should be taking into consideration is 6-foot-8, 245-pound junior Harper Kamp, who has led Cal (5-4) in scoring (13.6 ppg) and free-throw percentage (91.7%), while coming in second in rebounds (5.6 rpg).
"He's been good. He didn't really have a good tournament in Florida, but since then, he's been pretty good," Montgomery said. "Obviously, the first half against Southern Miss, he struggled because he got in foul trouble and he was out of the game pretty quickly. I think he only had seven minutes or something, which really hurt us. He's been good. He's getting much more comfortable with what he can do and the guys are starting to look for him a lot."
That game against the Golden Eagles was the Bears' second straight loss-the first back-to-back Ls that this team has experienced so far in this young season.
"They had every scorer back from next year, their top eight guys," Montgomery said. "Sure, we're worried about everybody's confidence. Any time you lose some games, the confidence level (dips). Now, for guys with veteran experience, who have been through it all, guys of which we really don't have any. They understand. They've been there before. But you're dealing with guys that have not had to carry the load before-any of them. Jorge's not played the one before and Harper's kind of our go-to guy and Markhuri's battling the foot thing, so every guy is susceptible to the 'Gee, I don't know.'
"I thought we played pretty well, given the circumstances where we had a bunch of people in foul trouble and it was really hard to get any rhythm in that game, but still, at the end of the day, with under three minutes, we were up six with the ball, which is really when we ran into problems."
This week in practice has been all about getting back to some fundamentals, and just some good, old-fashioned hard work, especially with some players taking finals as late as Friday afternoon.
"With finals, they're not going to have a lot of mental, you know, their minds are elsewhere. So, what you try to do in a finals week is you try and push them up and down and try to get them to work hard. We don't do a lot of new stuff, because they're not going to retain it as well, so you just try and push them up and down so they're subconsciously working without knowing it. We shorten practice down, but we do have a week. You never have enough time-you think it's a long time until it gets over with when you don't get done what you want to get done. But, we'll try to get some new things in, get some things accomplished this week."
Some of the new elements that will have to be added are ways to deal with the Mustangs' zone defense, which has kept them in their last two high-profile games against the Bruins and Aztecs. On Dec. 13, Cal Poly narrowly lost to San Diego State-the same team that trounced the Bears by 20 points on Dec. 8-by the tally of 51-45, albeit without top scorer Kawhi Leonard. The game before that, the Mustangs hung with UCLA, losing 72-61.
"They play a lot of zone, they play some zone-trap. They're very efficient; they've got their four-man who's 6-5 and real clever," Montgomery said of junior forward David Hanson, who averages 15.8 points and 5.5 boards per game. "He knows how to play. The two-guards are good penetrators and good at the point of attack. I think their thing has been tempo, trying to keep the tempo down, keep it a low-scoring game, minimize the possessions-which they've been able to do in that zone-again, they really pack it in there."
Over the past two games, Cal's two true freshman starters-Allen Crabbe and Gary Franklin-have struggled to score. While Franklin's troubles are already well-documented, Crabbe's 4-for-13 stretch was most certainly unexpected.
"I can't explain why," Montgomery said. "I know his knee has been bothering him all season long. His dad had called and just mentioned the fact that, jeez, Allen's got a lot more pop than what you're seeing. I think the knee has bothered him a lot, so he's got to get his legs strengthened up a little bit, maybe make that tendonitis go away. He's got to get his quads strengthened, so I think he's probably a little bit fatigued in a way, too, but he's a good shooter."
Franklin has shot 3-for-17 (17.6%) over the past three games, seeing his season shooting average drop to 27%. However, he did show some signs of promise against Southern Miss, at least as far as shot selection was concerned.
"You've got to try to find a balance of things that he can do. I've always just said that it starts at the defensive end. Just defend, take a charge, get a loose ball, do other things and let the game come to you," Montgomery said. "I thought his shot selection on Sunday, he didn't force things. He didn't make shots, but I looked today at Tyler Lamb-who was a real good player on that Mater Dei team, and probably the best player on that team-he plays six minutes (a game) for UCLA."
Franklin's issues have been exacerbated because of the need for him to come in and contribute immediately, rather than ease his way into college basketball.
"It's just unusual for a freshman in that situation, and he's been put in a role of responsibility, and so it's tough," Montgomery said. "Playing against this level of athlete-and we've not played against many guys that don't have pretty good athletes, yet-he'll be fine. It's just a matter of us finding out how to best utilize his abilities and him to find out how to be successful within the context of what we're trying to do."
When Franklin just couldn't get anything to fall on Sunday, Montgomery put in walk-on junior Nigel Carter, who made a strong case for more minutes with a virtuoso career performance, notching 16 points.
"I wouldn't say it's a surprise. I mean, I don't know that you'd expect him to go out and go four-for-four from three. I think that if we felt like he could do that all the time, I would guess that we'd be going to him more," Montgomery said. "He's improved since he's been here, without question. I think that he had confidence in that game, once the first one went in. I think it's just that he's figured out that he doesn't have to score all the time. If he just goes in and plays and does other things, that he might be able to play a little bit more. For sure, without that, we'd have been sunk."
The Mustangs have a couple of three-point snipers of their own in Hanson-who's hit 34.5% of his three-point attempts (19-of-55)-and Chris O'Brien, who's hit 10-of-19 (52.6%) of his treys.
"I think the two guys are pretty good penetrators, but of you look at the two games I mentioned, you see UCLA and San Diego State, I think probably, there are games where they probably don't think like they have much cooking inside, size-wise, because they don't have great size, so they probably feel like that's what they have to do," Montgomery said.
The Dogs Are Barking
Even with two bum feet, center Markhuri Sanders-Frison has soldiered on and continued to be a force for the Bears. He's averaged 8.4 points and 7.56 boards per game and has shot 56.6% (30-for-53).
Sanders-Frison has been wearing new sneakers as of late; well, to be more accurate, old sneakers-the team's model from last season-and has experience some relief, but the fact remains that his feet are and will be in pain for the foreseeable future. At this point, it's all about finding something that's the least uncomfortable.
"He's trying to find something. The fact that the feet are already hurt, changing his shoe is not going to make it not hurt, because he's got plantar fasciitis," Montgomery said. "It's that sheath on the bottom of your foot, and it's painful. He's trying, and we'd love to have it go away, but I don't know how we're going to get that done, short of sitting him down for a month, and even then, you don't know for sure. He's trying to find a pair of shoes that best fits him and that he feels most comfortable in. He's getting-if he hasn't already gotten them-another pair of orthotics coming in that might change the pressure points and all that kind of stuff."