Cal hosts Washington State in conference home opener

BERKELEY-Allen Crabbe walked into the Haas Pavilion interview room standing a bit taller than he has before. When he sat down in front of the local media, he didn't slouch as much as he had in weeks past. He sat up straight, projected his voice, and seemed for all to look like a young man who is more assured of his place in the world, or, at the very least, on the Cal basketball team.
"It's confidence," Crabbe smiled at Tuesday's weekly press conference. "Being on the court for a long time shows that the coaches trust me. I don't want to be out there just wasting minutes. I have to be productive when I'm out there, so it's just a mindset. If I'm not going to be aggressive, I'm not helping my team, and that's not what I want to do."
In the past two games, the true freshman wing has shown the type of aggression that the coaching staff has been working all season to instill in the 6-foot-6, 205-pound guard out of Los Angeles Price. In each of his past two games, Crabbe has scored 17 points, shooting 5-for-11 against Arizona and 5-for-14 against Arizona State on his first conference road trip, tying the most looks he's seen in two straight games this season (he shot the ball a combined 25 times against Hartford and Stanford).
"I'm not sure I would have expected a freshman to play 40 minutes in a Pac-10 game," said head coach Mike Montgomery, referring to Crabbe's season-high playing time against the Sun Devils. "I think that's a little abnormal, but we're not real deep right now. We don't have a lot of options, so when we get a chance to win a game, we're going to go with the people who we thing give us the best chance to win a game, and we just didn't have a lot of things that we could do, so we ended up playing him just short of 40 minutes. Generally speaking, freshmen shouldn't have to play all that much, but, given our circumstance, Allen's one of our key guys."
Over his past five games, Crabbe has averaged 35.4 minutes per game, playing the entire 40 minutes against the Sun Devils for a season-high.
"I'm just looking to be more aggressive, that's all, and helping the team out a little bit more since we lost Gary," Crabbe said, referring to the abrupt departure of fellow true freshman Gary Franklin, who averaged 8.2 points per game. "He was a scorer as well, so I guess I'm just trying to pick up a little bit of that slack just to help the team out a little bit more."
He'll definitely have to be on his game this weekend against two of the best teams in the conference, as the Bears (8-7, 1-2 in the Pac-10) host Washington State (12-4, 2-2) and first-place Washington (12-3, 4-0).
"Coach told us that when people come here, at home, we should win these games," Crabbe said. "We're looking forward to preparing for Washington State and Washington, because they have some pretty good players on both teams, so we're going to have to be ready this week."
This weekend, Crabbe should be seeing a lot more attention from the opposition's best defenders, given his shooting prowess-a 43.2 shooting percentage in his past four games-and his increased number of chances of late.
"I know that every game, I'm not going to be able to just get those open shots and be left open like that," he said. "I just have to pull a few more tricks out of my bag in my game, maybe pump fake here and there and a one- or two-dribble pull-up instead of just shooting threes all the time when I can do more things with my game.
"I'm not going to get open looks all the time. When a guy's coming at me, I have to catch him off-guard. He's going to think I'm going to just shoot it, so I'll pump-fake it, get him in the air and then go right by him, pull up or dish it off to an open teammate."
Getting more attention from the other team's best defender is something that Crabbe relishes. It gives him a chance to learn and expand his game even more in his first collegiate campaign.
"I like that," he smiled. "It's a goal that I set for myself, that, as the season went on, I want to make progress with my game."
Since the Franklin's unexpected split with the program, Crabbe has seen an uptick in his responsibilities for the youthful and undermanned Bears, raising his points per game from 8.4 to a high-water mark of 9.5.
"I don't think there's pressure, but I definitely think that we have a mantra that we all have to step up now a little bit more," Crabbe said. "We lost Gary, and he was a big scorer for us. Some games, he really did well, and we're going to miss that scoring, but I think a lot of guys are going to step up now."
Crabbe is also shooting well from beyond the arc, hitting 33.3 percent of his shots from three-point land and a combined 7-of-15 (46.7 percent) in his last two games.
"I'll take a shot from anywhere; it really doesn't matter to me," said Crabbe, who was a bit reluctant earlier in the season to be so free with his shot selection. "I would think that I would be taking those shots if Gary were still here. There have been a few games where I had double-figure shots when Gary was here, so I wouldn't say that Gary was the reason why I wasn't getting all my shots. It was just me not being as aggressive as I was these last couple weekends."
For Montgomery, that isn't such a bad thing.
"I think he's looking around, realizing that this is his opportunity to take shots and the ball's coming to him a little bit more, so I don't know that he's realized anything; he looks at it as an opportunity," Montgomery said. "He's a good shooter and I think he realizes that missing shots is not the end of the world. The other thing that's going to happen, of course, is that people are going to put their best defender on him, so he's going to get some attention, too. He's a good deep shooter. If he can get his feet square, he's a good shooter. I don't think he ever thinks he should miss."
This weekend will be Cal's first real gauntlet of the conference schedule, and the latest in a series of weekends that will put the young Bears to the test.
"USC and UCLA might be up in there, but the way that the records go, Washington and Washington State, because thus far, Washington has proven to be the best team in the league," Montgomery said, when asked if this weekend will be the toughest he'll face in the conference schedule. "(The Huskies) have been the most dangerous. They're just loaded with talent and they're very deep, very physical, and Washington State has played very well."
Cal squares off with the Cougars first in their Pac-10 home opener on Thursday at 7:30 pm. Washington State checks in with the third-most prolific attack in the conference (76.4 points per game), the Pac-10's third-highest shooting percentage (48 percent) and the conference's best shooting defense, holding opponents to a paltry 37.5 shooting percentage.
"The same team that, last year, was close in a lot of games, has just grown together," Montgomery said. "Klay Thompson is certainly one of the best players in our conference and one of the best shooters in the country."
A big part of the Cougars' stingy defense is due to shot-blocker extraordinaire DeAngelo Casto, who averages almost two blocks per game to lead the Pac-10. As a team, Washington State pulls down 35.6 percent of defensive rebounds, good for third in the conference.
On the offensive side, the Cougars feature the Pac-10's most potent scorer in Thompson, who averages 22.3 points per game.
"Last year, he had a pretty good half, as I recall here," laughed Montgomery, recalling Thompson's 23-point first half last Feb. 13 at Haas Pavilion. "We know he can play."
The Huskies come to town with the reigning conference Player of the Week in Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 19.5 points and 8.5 assists while shooting 46.2 percent from three-point range to help Washington to its best conference start since 1984. Stopping Thomas-or at the very least, containing him-will go a long way for the Bears to be competitive against the top team in the Pac-10.
"The biggest learning experience that I've had is defense," Crabbe said. "People emphasized to me in high school that sometimes, I take off plays. In college, you take off plays and you get scored on, and that's what I've been learning. You can't really relax any time, so that's one of the biggest things I'm learning right now."
Cal will tip off against the Huskies at 7 pm on Sunday at Haas Pavilion.
• Montgomery said that true freshman sniper Alex Rossi was still unable to engage in basketball activities, but he's moving around a bit easier with a lower abdominal injury. Chances are that he will have to redshirt if he can't get on the floor by midseason.
• Minnesota transfer point guard Justin Cobbs has been a force in practice for the Bears.
"If he focuses, yeah," Montgomery said, in regards to the fiery Cobbs being a good player to have in practice. "It's hard for him to come out every day, knowing that he's not going to play. Now, he has to play every day, all the time, every day, with no relief. Before, we had him sit out because we had two point guards and we were playing Gary, so he was over on the side. Now, he's in all the time."
Montgomery-who does not bestow praise lightly-believes that when he's eligible next year, he could very well be in the mix as the starting point guard.
"He can dominate, sometimes. He's pretty good. He's hard to guard, he's very strong, but of course, he's not playing, so he's hard for him to be motivated every day," Montgomery said. "He can distribute, but he can also score. He can get where he wants to get. He's pretty strong, and for a while today, when his team was turning the ball over, he just said, 'Well, I'm going to make plays,' and so he started to make plays. He's hard to guard, when he gets after it like that. He'll go get Jorge (Gutierrez) and he and Jorge will get into it, and he'll go get Brandon and he and Brandon will get into it. He can cause lots of problems. I would think he'll play a lot next year."