Cal kicks off four-game conference home stand

After playing five of the past seven games away from Haas Pavilion, the Cal basketball team returns on Thursday for four straight contests at home, starting with always-dangerous Oregon State on Thursday at 8 pm and continuing with Oregon on Saturday at 3 pm. The Beavers feature sophomore Jared Cunningham and senior Calvin Haynes.
"They've mixed up their 2-3 and their 1-3-1 zone. They'll go to their 1-3-1 zone to see if they can't try and get a little bit of a run going. They put a lot of energy into it, but it's pretty much the same," said Bears head coach Mike Montgomery. "They're a little more up-tempo, might shoot it a little earlier than they had in the past. They're not looking, necessarily, to run clock. Cunningham, Haynes, they can score a little bit quicker, I think, so they shoot the ball a little bit quicker."
Thanks to point guard Brandon Smith -- who turned 20 on Tuesday - Cal (10-9, 3-4 in the Pac-10) was able to come away with a split down in Los Angeles, taking a two-point win from USC at the Galen Center on Saturday. On Thursday, Smith will have to contend with an Oregon State zone defense that gave his predecessor -- Jerome Randle -- fits last season.
"I think it got into Jerome's head a little bit," Montgomery said. "I think that it took away some of the things that he likes to do - I think he was 3-for-13 from three in those games - and I think that probably got into his head a little bit. I think it took him off his rhythm in terms of where he gets his shots and where he likes to get his shots, but I think Brandon's been pretty good at handling that kind of stuff and I think he'll figure it out."
Smith joked with reporters on Tuesday about his newfound maturity at the rip old age of 20, but his play on the court speaks far more to the strides that he has made in his sophomore season.
"I woke up this morning feeling like a man," smiled the baby-faced De La Salle alum. "Woke up with a full-grown beard, had to shave it before I came to school, woke up, read the newspaper, had a good cup of joe. I have study hall in a little bit and there's a meeting tonight, so the celebration will have to wait until Saturday with my family after the game, maybe have my mom cook some of my her famous chicken enchiladas."
Aside from drinking coffee and reading the Wall Street Journal, though, Smith has matured before our very eyes since Pac-10 play started. He's seen his minutes shoot up from 23.5 per game to 30.7, his shooting percentage has gone from 37.7 to 39.4, his three-point shooting percentage has risen from 27.3 to 33.3, his assists-to-turnovers ratio has gone from 1.42 (61 to 43) to 1.73 (26 to 15) and his points per game ticked up from 5.2 to 6.
"My first point of evaluation is wins, because I feel, as a point guard, that's your biggest job: to help lead your team to a W," said Smith, who has seen Cal (10-9, 3-4 in the Pac-10) go 4-4 since he took over as the starting point. "I think we're improving in that area. We're competitive in each game, which is big. Second of all is assists-to-turnovers ratio, and I know in the last couple of games, my turnovers have dropped as my minutes have increased. Besides that, in the last couple of games, I've stepped up my scoring. I think it's big to come out with an aggressive mindset. I'm looking to attack and to get to the rim, get to the foul line and hit some open shots."
This weekend, though, Smith and the Bears will face two teams which employ zone defenses, something that Cal has not yet seen this year, save for limited stretches.
"They put a lot of energy into the 1-3-1, so it'd be hard for them to play it for 40 minutes, because it wouldn't be as good without the energy that they're putting into it, but they're putting a lot of energy into it, so it takes a lot out of them," Montgomery said of Oregon State. "They kind of surprised some people, early, after their preseason. They've played pretty well at home, so they've been a little up and down. I don't know whether they've always put the same amount of energy to it or no, but they've been real good on occasion, and other times they've not been as good."
The Bears have enacted a zone of their own in recent games, opting to go with a bigger lineup when shifting out of man defense.
"We could have a bigger zone which might be more effective, in some ways, by bringing a bigger player in, but it's just that they've got a little confidence and the other team's not running around because you're supposed to be patient against a zone," Montgomery said. "It allows you to maybe take a deep breath instead of the team coming at you, running pick and rolls and driving and kicking and all that kind of stuff."
Despite head coach Craig Robinson's mastery of the zone, the Beavers (8-10, 3-4) have still struggled on defense, ranking last in the Pac-10 in scoring defense. However, Oregon State does lead the conference in steals, averaging 10.6 swipes per game.
"They are quick to the ball," Montgomery said. "I would say that they've got two or three kids that have got real quick hands and that anticipate really well, so they get a lot of steals. Calvin Hanes is pretty good. They get a lot of steals, actually, out of their 2-3 zone. They're inside, outside, kind of messing with you a little bit. They'll jump to passing lanes. They're very quick that way, which is why the steals are so high."
On the offensive end, the Beavers are led by the dynamic Cunningham, who threw down a massive dunk against Arizona at the beginning of the month. Cunningham is ninth in the conference with his 14.3 points per game, third in three-point shooting percentage (43.8) and first in steals (3.1 per game).
"He's very, very explosive, playing with a lot of confidence," Montgomery said. "He's actually shooting a good percentage from outside, so that's kind of an added dimension, but he's probably more of a driver. He likes to get to the basket. He's very explosive. He's had some tips and dunks and so forth that are pretty impressive, so he's an explosive athlete."
Smith is more than a little familiar with Cunningham.
"We were on the same AAU team for a while, so it'll be fun to see an old friend again," he said.
Smith, of course, has come into his own of late, and Montgomery sees his sophomore point guard as a calming presence on the floor.
"He's certainly had his moments, and I think he does stabilize us," Montgomery said. "He does the handling and allows the others to do what they do. I think Crabbe and Jorge now know their roles. He had the nine assists in one game and the a couple big threes against USC. He didn't play much last year, so you're really not talking about a guy with a lot of experience at this level and this conference. But, he's done a pretty good job. Against SC, if he finishes it up, he has a real good game. He made a couple mistakes at the end, but he's been pretty solid out there."
Against both Oregon State and the Ducks -- who the Bears will play on Saturday -- Cal will have to depend on its big men down low, especially since zone defenses can wreak havoc on offensive rebounding.
"They're pretty good at knowing what they have to do out of the thing," Montgomery said of the Beavers. "They're long, they get to the ball pretty well. It's possible that if you got the right kind of shots up -- if they weren't going in -- that are coming off close, you could get some offensive rebounds, but rebounding the zone is always a problem. I'm sure they've addressed it."
As for Oregon (9-10, 2-5), they still sit near the conference cellar, just above Arizona State, but first-year head coach Dana Altman has scored wins against 2010 NCAA Tournament participant UC Santa Barbara, the Trojans and the Beavers.
"He's got them playing really hard. They're really running around," Montgomery said. "They play a lot of small guys. They don't have a lot of big guys, so they'll play a lot of guards, and they'll open the court up and drive and kick and drop. They're pressuring on mades, their 1-2-2, three-quarter back to zone, but they're consistent with it, and they really hustle in the zone. They really run and they've got some hybrid stuff going on, a little bit of match-up principles and so forth, because they'll end up with a guard down at the forward spot, so they'll run a forward-cross and all that kind of stuff. He's got them really playing hard."
The Ducks are led by 6-foot-6, 245-pound fifth-year senior Joevan Catron, who scores an average of 15.4 points per game (sixth in the conference), shoots a team-best 52.1 percent from the field and averages a team-high 6.4 boards per game (10th in the Pac-10). Junior guard Garrett Sim is pesky as a 6-foot-1, 181-pound guard, starting 16 of the Ducks' 19 games, shooting 31.9 percent from beyond the arc (23-for-72) and averaging 7.9 points per game.
6-foot-6, 210-pound sophomore forward E.J. Singler has swatted a team-high 19 blocks -- good for ninth in the conference -- and is scoring 11.8 points per game thanks in large part to a 45.8 field goal percentage. Other big contributors for Oregon are 6-foot-8 junior forward Jeremy Jacob (four boards per game) and 6-foot junior guard Malcolm Armstead (team-best 3.4 assists per game).
"They have four starters back. Armstead started and Jacob started, and Singler and Catron, so they've got some people," Montgomery said. "Maybe one or two other guys, but not a lot after that that have been in the program. Sim has been there for two years, so he's a third-year guy."
The Ducks average 71.9 points per game scoring, just ahead of Cal's 69.7-point average for sixth place in the conference. However, Oregon is dead last in the Pac-10 in field goal percentage, tied with Stanford at 41.1 percent. The Ducks are also second-to-last in the conference in three-point shooting (31.1 percent) and ninth in scoring defense (69.4 points per game), just ahead of Oregon State.
This weekend also marks the beginning of a four-game home stretch for the Bears, who have not played more than two straight at Haas Pavilion since a five-game stretch against San Diego State, Southern Miss, Cal Poly, Kansas and Hartford from Dec. 8-28.
With three consecutive games (including the Sun Devils on Feb. 3) against some of the Pac-10's weaker teams, this stretch could give the Bears the chance to make a move.
"Ideally, yeah. We've played so few home games, particularly against (conference teams), that you don't know how much home court advantage is going to be for us," said Montgomery. "We've played pretty well on the road. I would think a couple of our better games have been at Arizona and maybe at UCLA in some ways, and I don't know if we've played at that level at home, necessarily. Maybe the Washington State game, you might say, but I don't know how much home court has yet sunk in for these guys, in terms of what kind of an advantage it is. I do know that we're just short people, every day at practice. You have what you have, and if one or two of those guys doesn't have a real good game, you're kind of stuck."
Cal has drawn an average of 8,006 at home this year, the third-most in the conference, but still woefully short of Haas Pavilion's capacity of 11,877.
"We'll see if (students) show up," said Montgomery, who's last lengthy home stand fell during finals and winter recess. "My experience has been that typically, if you're just OK, maybe it's not so much of a draw. That would hold true across the Bay. If you're good, everyone thinks it's good, but if you're not, they're just ambivalent. I would hope that hey would turn out because they haven't had that opportunity yet to show. This is the first real opportunity that we've been here. This team's played real hard, and they deserve some support."