BERKELEY -- Sophomore Cal point guard Brandon Smith hasn't quite put the finishing touches his NCAA Tournament bracket, but what he does have down on paper is as telling about both his - and his team's - attitude as any statistic.
"I'm always pulling for the underdogs," Smith laughed. "I don't have any of the No. 1-seeds in the Final Four in my bracket."
While the Bears (17-14) won't be playing in the Big Dance, they do have the opportunity to make some noise in the National Invitational Tournament, particularly in a first-round home game on Wednesday against Ole Miss, with tipoff scheduled for 6 PM at Haas Pavilion.
"We took a couple of days off after the USC loss, and, as a team, we needed to regroup, but I think that there was an agreement that we want to do some damage in this tournament," Smith said. "We don't want to waste our time, just going up and down in a couple extra games. We're competitive, and we'd like to make a hit in this tournament."
The evening tilt will mark the first time that the two squads have ever squared off, something that seemingly levels the playing field between the Pac-10 and SEC foes.
"It makes it a bit more interesting," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "It's more pure basketball. It'd be like if football didn't get tapes and they just went out and played. You don't have to know every formation; you just have to go out and guard somebody."
The Rebels finished 20-13 overall and 7-9 in the SEC, falling 75-66 in the second round of the SEC Tournament to NCAA Tournament-bound Kentucky, which went on to win the conference tournament over Florida, 70-54.
"They're a typical Southeast Conference team," Montgomery said. "They're athletic, they're long, they've got some guys that can really play."
The two squads have only played one common opponent this season: Southern Miss. Southern Miss downed the Golden Eagles, 86-81 on Dec. 4, while Cal fell, 80-78, one week later in Berkeley.
"I think that, for us, in a perfect world, they're probably going to have a harder time maybe figuring out our offense than somebody who knows it from last year that comes out and knows what they need to do," Montgomery said. "We do a lot of stuff, and that can be to our advantage, but the same thing could hold true for them. The things they do, though, we've seen. Maybe we haven't seen as good athletes across the board as they have, but the stuff that they do, we've seen. It's more about who's doing it with them, than what they're doing. With us, it's more about what we're doing than who's doing it."
The Rebels are led by 5-foot-10 senior guard Chris Warren, who was named to the All-SEC First Team by both the conference coaches as well as the Associated Press. Warren leads the nation in free throw percentage (93.3) and is on pace to set the school and conference records for a single season. Warren has scored 1,998 points in his career, and with his next bucket, will become the fourth player in SEC history with 2,000 points and 400 assists.
"He's fast," Smith said. "He's really fast, and he's capable of pulling the ball up at any time, a la Jerome (Randle) last year. He's a combination of Isaiah Thomas and Jerome. I think he works very well off the ball screens, so I would compare that to Isaiah Thomas at UW. I'm going to be responsible for him if we get them in man, so I'm going to do my best to contain him. I know my guys will help me out."
The Bears have played a mix of man defense and zone this season, but the flow of the game will determine which scheme they primarily use against Ole Miss.
"We'll see what works," Montgomery said. "They run a lot of pick and rolls, and given the depth, the reason that we zoned in the first place was to try and save ourselves a little bit from getting into foul trouble. When we did go to a zone and the other team didn't react well to it, then we stayed. If they didn't then we went man."
Depth will be a bit less of an issue for Cal than it had been during the meat of the schedule. Having only played two games over the past 17 days, the Bears are probably as rested as they have been during the entire season.
"Well, yeah, but I think it's taken its toll, mentally if not physically," Montgomery said. "Guys know they have to go out and have to do it. I think there's renewed energy, so we'll see what happens. Sometimes, teams don't want to play. Sometimes, teams have had it, they're mad and they don't want to play. But, this team wants to play. The notion that a game in the NIT is going to be easier than a game in the NCAA is not accurate. You're playing winning teams with winning records, and you've got your hands full, almost regardless of who you play. They're good basketball teams."
Montgomery said that the most likely candidates for playing time off the bench would include freshman Richard Solomon, sophomore Bak Bak, freshman Emerson Murray, redshirt freshman Jeff Powers and junior Nigel Carter.
"Bak would play a big, Powers, Emerson, Nigel, the same cast of characters," he said. "It's just a matter of, can we buy time with some guys, can they go in at this stage of the game. In a way, there's a reward factor in this thing, in that it's a reward for having had a decent season, and those kids have been out there as long as anyone else. They've been going through the same things, yet you want to try and win, so you can't negate that part of it. We'll just have to play it by ear."
Ole Miss hasn't had such depth issues, with eight players seeing double-digit minutes on the floor. But, even despite the season-long grind and a shorter bench than their first-round opponent, the Bears are happy to be able to keep on playing.
"It would be better, probably, for us if we were playing nine or 10 guys, so we'd be getting all these young guys experience, but we're pretty beat-up," Montgomery said. "We've played a lot of minutes. I just think it's the idea of earning the right to play. There are 340 Division I schools, and out of those 340 Division I schools, I would say that the majority of them give full scholarships, and so they have the ability to go out and recruit basketball players, so you're in the top third or maybe the top of all those schools, which is not bad. It's getting harder and harder -- the Tournament is hard to get in to. I guess I was in 12, 13 straight years (with Stanford), and you kind of think it's not hard, but it's hard. Just ask anybody that's trying to get in for the first time, it's hard to get in. Until you build your reputation up and get to where people know who you are and know you're good, it's hard to get in. Poor Seth Greenberg hasn't gotten in, and he's had some pretty good teams.
"The NIT is a good event. It's more basketball. The year that I won it, it was a better experience than most of the NCAA experiences. It really was a great experience. It was like, all of the sudden, you were like this group of gypsies, traveling all around, 'Where're we going next? Where're they going to put us?' then you go to New York and they treat you great. It was fabulous."
The Rebels were third in the SEC in scoring offense this season (73.9 points per game), but were not particularly stout defensively, allowing 67.6 points per game (ninth in the conference). Thanks to Warren's national-best free-throw percentage, the Rebels ranked first in the SEC from the charity stripe, sinking 75.7 percent of their free throws. While Ole Miss allowed a conference-worst 35.3 three-point shooting percentage, the Bears have no true three-point snipers, save for Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Allen Crabbe, who is shooting 39.9 percent from beyond the arc but has shown a preference to create his own shots on the wings and slashing through the post.
"I think you just kind of improv, to be honest with you. There's a lot of times where things will get messy on the court, and we'll not be able to get into an offensive set, and then that's when you just start making plays," Smith said. "I think we execute our offense really well. Our bigs down low, I think, can do some damage, as well, with Markhuri (Sanders-Frison) and Harper (Kamp), and our shooters, too. If one of them can get into the lane and drive and kick, we've got guys who can definitely knock down shots."
Crabbe picked up his scoring during the conference slate, netting an average of 16.4 points per game -- sixth in the Pac-10. But, Warren was the Rebels' go-to guy throughout the year, ranking second in the SEC in scoring over the entire schedule. Warren also checked in at fifth in assists per game with 3.8 and was third in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8).
"Chris Warren, averaging 19 points, obviously, he can put up big numbers, with 30-some against South Carolina, he reminds you a little bit of Jerome in that he's very quick, hasn't met a shot he doesn't like and he can get to the basket," Montgomery said. "He's got great range."
Warren isn't just a threat going to the hoop. He is among team leaders in three-point percentage, shooting 34 percent (90-of-265) from beyond the arc. He is as comfortable shooting the ball from outside as he is penetrating and creating his own opportunities in the paint.
"When he's in the open court, he's very good with the ball, and if we don't get people back, he'll just blow by us and create situations, but I think he'd probably rather shoot the jump shot," Montgomery said. "He's not a quick as Jerome, in and out, but he's a little bit like that, in that he can get his shot kind of when he wants."
Ole Miss doesn't depend completely on Warren, though. The Rebels have several other scoring options on the perimeter, including 6-foot-6 senior Zach Graham and 5-foot-11 freshman guard Dundrecous Nelson. Graham is averaging 14.1 points per game shooting 38.6 percent from three, and Nelson is averaging 7.4 points per game but is just as dangerous from deep, shooting 37.7 percent from beyond the arc.
"From the film that I've seen so far, they get up and down the court very well," Smith said. "Their guards pretty much run their team. I know their one guard (Warren) is averaging close to 20 points, they've got a wing man (Nelson) who's capable of getting hot at any time and they've got some really big bigs."
Inside, Ole Miss is led by a pair of quality big men in 6-foot-10, 210-pound junior Terrance Henry and 6-foot-9, 238-pound sophomore Reginald Buckner, who tallied an eye-popping 95 blocks on the season, averaging three per game to rank second in the conference.
"They've got some great length inside. Buckner's got like 90 blocks on the year, and that's pretty impressive," Montgomery said. "He had seven blocks the other day, so he's really long and a shot-blocker. Henry's long at 6-10. But, I think their strength, scoring-wise, is the three perimeter kids -- Graham and Warren, in particular. You play in the Southeast Conference, and you're used to playing high-caliber games, high-quality games, so it'll be a good test for us."
Because of the way that Ole Miss uses Buckner, he may be susceptible to shot fakes on the wings.
"I would guess that he would be susceptible to shot fakes, but we've got to get them off their feet and try to get to the line because trying to release the ball from beneath the rim is not going to work so well," Montgomery said. "You don't want to go up and release the ball underneath the basket and try to out-quick him, because he'll block your shot. He blocks a lot of shots one man removed. By that, I mean, he won't even be guarding the guy, and then that guy will make a move and he'll come from one man removed. They actually feed back, so it's like their version of monstering at the post. They don't double; they just kind of wait for him to stand behind, he goes up and tries to get a piece of it and they'll feed back."
The two strong low post players present similar problems to those posed by the team that knocked the Bears out of the Pac-10 Tournament -- USC -- but there are some key differences.
"They're not as physical probably as SC. Their bigs aren't as skilled as (Nikola) Vucevic, for example. They're not as strong as (Alex) Stepheson, but they're live, they're long and they're shot-blocking," Montgomery said. "Vucevic is a pro-type big, and he causes you lots of problems, both offensively and defensively. Guards, there are some similarities, but none of the SC guards are as good as Chris Warren. Chris Warren's really good. He can put numbers up. There's similarity in that regard."
Should the Bears advance, they would likely go up against future Pac-12 foe Colorado (21-13), which faces Texas Southern (19-12) at 6 PM in Boulder, Colo., on Wednesday. The Buffaloes and several other teams in Cal's bracket just missed the chance to participate in the NCAA Tournament.
"I'd say there are a lot of good teams. Virginia Tech's a very good team, the four No. 1-seeds, they're very good teams," Montgomery said. "There are eight, 10, 12 teams that very easily could have an excellent case for being in the NCAA Tournament that are probably better than three, four, five, six, eight teams that are in the Tournament, but that's always the way it is. The cutoff point is never pure. It's not like it's 64 good teams and then you get bad teams. There are 100 good teams."