At noon on Thursday, the Cal basketball team will start what could very well be a dark horse run for the Pac-10 Tournament championship. Having won four straight games to finish off the season and arguably playing their best basketball of the entire year, the No. 5-seed Bears (17-13, 10-8 in the Pac-10) will square off against No. 4-seed USC (18-13, 10-8).
"We can make a run and win all three games," said Cal junior power forward Harper Kamp. "We have confidence that, if we just play as a team, the way we've been playing, there's no reason why we can't do well, (no reason) why we can't surprise some people."
The Bears and the Trojans have already squared off twice against one another, with each team winning in the other's home gym. On Jan. 22, Cal edged USC 68-66 at the Galen Center on the strength of a 12-point performance from point guard Brandon Smith, who hit two clutch threes and shot 4-of-7 from the floor.
On Feb. 17, the Trojans fended off a second-half comeback by the Bears thanks to a 22-point night from 5-foot-7, 155-pound freshman guard Maurice Jones, who shot 7-of-13 from the floor and 5-of-6 from three-point range.
"He's a very good player. I like his game," said Cal's Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Allen Crabbe, who missed the second bout with USC because of lingering symptoms from a concussion suffered against Washington. "To be so small, he's not afraid to make big plays. USC is just a team who plays hard, but we're looking forward to it. We feel it's a good match-up for us. We're going to go in there looking to get some wins."
In the first bout with the Trojans, Crabbe scored 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting and 3-of-5 from three-point range, but since then -- when he's been healthy -- Crabbe has been one of the deadliest shooters in the league and stepped up his game as the season drew to a close. Since returning from his concussion, Crabbe has averaged 19.2 points per game. The Bears definitely missed Crabbe's shooting during their last meeting with USC.
"Allen is a great player," Kamp said. "He can get hot at any second and start knocking down shots. That would have been a big help, not to say that Jeff (Powers) didn't come in and do a good job, or that other guys didn't step up and play well, but he's a guy that can step up and prepare for you on any night, and it would have been helpful to have one of his big performances that night."
The Trojans knocked off the No. 3-seed Huskies in Seattle in the regular season finale, so they have some momentum coming in, as well. If USC can get Mr. Double-Double himself -- Nikola Vucevic -- going, the Trojans will be tough to stop.
Vucevic leads the conference in double-doubles with 20 this season and is averaging 17.7 points and 10.3 boards per game. He is fourth in the Pac-10 in scoring and first in rebounding. His 50.9 shooting percentage ranks 10th in the conference and his 1.3 blocks per game are fifth in the Pac-10.
The 6-foot-10 Vucevic isn't the only sizeable obstacle for the Bears to overcome. The Trojans also feature 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward Alex Stepheson. Down in Los Angeles, with Vucevic struggling with foul trouble, Stepheson was limited to eight points and six boards. Last time out, Stepheson stepped up and scored 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting while pulling down 11 boards, which tied for the game-high with Cal's senior center Markhuri Sanders-Frison.
"It's going to be a physical game," Sanders-Frison said. "They have good bigs and they have a good team. We owe them one more butt-kicking, and it's our job to go down there and give it to them hard with whatever master plan Coach comes up with."
As one of the sleeper picks to do some damage in the conference tournament, the Bears can't get caught looking ahead. Even though with three wins - which would include a tournament title victory -- could mean a possible -- and heretofore unthinkable -- NCAA Tournament berth, USC is not a team to be overlooked.
"I think there's a lot of people in this league that could win the tournament, frankly. I definitely do; I think there's a lot of people who are capable of winning this tournament," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "Now, it's going to be hard playing playing three games in a row for us and others that don't have great depth. Washington State, I think, is capable of winning it. We'll wait and see what happens with (Reggie) Moore and Klay Thompson, but they were up a bunch in the first half against UCLA (Saturday night). I just think there are a lot of people who can win this thing, and I think it's going to be a good tournament from that perspective. I know that we take our hit, but I think the league's pretty good. Maybe it wasn't in November and December; there were some losses that raised some eyebrows, but I think, right now, it's pretty good. I think it's pretty solid. I think people have figured out how to play, people have figured out how to use the people that they have and I think there could be discussion about a number of different things, as far as the next event (the NCAA Tournament)."
For the Bears to even get a look at the Big Dance, though, they would most likely have to win the tournament outright. Should Cal advance to the second round, the Bears would likely face No. 1-seed Arizona (25-6, 14-4). The Wildcats barely scraped by Cal, 73-71, in the desert on Jan. 6, and required three overtime periods to down the Bears, 107-105, in Berkeley on Feb. 5.
On the other side of the bracket, the No. 2-seed Bruins (22-9, 13-5) have to get through a surprising Oregon team before facing the winner of the 3/6 match-up between Washington (20-10, 11-7) and the Cougars (19-11, 9-9) -- who defeated the Huskies in both cross-state clashes this season. The bracket, it seems, would look to be on Cal's side.
"I would think, probably, to even be talked about for that, yeah," Kamp said of winning the conference tourney and sneaking in to the NCAA Tournament. "But, if we win that final, there's nothing to talk about. We just want to leave no doubt."
One thing is for sure: should the Bears get past the Trojans, their already-shallow depth will be severely tested. Only seven players -- six of whom are still with the team after the departure of Gary Franklin -- have averaged double-digit minutes this season in Kamp, Sanders-Frison, Crabbe, junior All-Pac-10 first-teamer Jorge Gutierrez, sophomore Smith and freshman big Richard Solomon.
"Looking back, the only time we've played back-to-back games was the Orlando tournament," Kamp said. "I do remember being tired for that, but I think we're a little more used to the game conditions now. That's yet to be seen, and I think, with what we're playing for, hopefully, as a unit, that's just not going to matter. If we're tired, we're just going to have to set that aside. The fatigue and all of that, you can feel that later."
As the expression goes, you can sleep when you're dead, and with potentially three straight games on the horizon, Cal will have to continue to rely on sheer toughness and grit just to get to the championship round. In two of the past three games, the Bears have trailed at the half, only to come out with big second halves to pull out wins. Two weeks ago, Cal fell behind in both games in Oregon, but ended up winning by 10 and 11 points against the Ducks and Oregon State, respectively. In Eugene on Feb. 24, the Bears shot 15-of-24 in the second half (62.5 percent) and in Corvallis on Feb. 26, Cal shot 18-of-25 (72 percent) after halftime. In the season finale blowout against Stanford, the Bears shot 17-of-26 (65.4 percent) in the second half.
"The one thing about us is, we've lost some games and we've been in some situations where we felt badly about a couple losses that we had, that we thought maybe we shouldn't have had," Montgomery said. "This team hasn't gotten down about it. They've figured out a way to come back and play a little bit harder."
Motivation has been anything but a problem for the senior Sanders-Frison, who was perhaps the most optimistic about his team's chances even in the preseason.
"Personally, honestly, to tell you guys the truth, I thought we were going to win (the regular season title) again," he said. "I have confidence in these guys. They work so hard -- so dang hard -- and we have a great coaching staff. I thought we have all the keys to unlock the doors that we want to unlock. We just came up short. We didn't seize those close games. We'd be right up there if we get Arizona on the road, UCLA on the road -- those are all two-point games. That changes our whole standing, and there were some at home that we slipped up on -- the triple-overtime and stuff like that -- so I think we're in a good place."
As for the team's potential in the Pac-10 tourney, Sanders-Frison again expressed his trademark boundless optimism.
"I think we're going to do great," he said. "We have a lot of confidence coming into this game, going into the tournament. We're going to take it one game at a time. We want to see how many W's we can rack up."
Of course, in the one-and-done format, no one is more aware of the possibility of an abrupt ending to the season than the 6-foot-7 senior.
"Definitely. I always play every game like it's my last, and I just reassure myself to just enjoy it," Sanders-Frison said. "That's the main point for me -- the main focus. I'm just enjoying it, because, you know, it's been a long trip for me to get to the stage that I'm at, and I just want to soak up every moment I can with these guys."
Crabbe and the other freshmen have taken that cue from Sanders-Frison, Gutierrez and Kamp -- the team's three veteran leaders -- and have run with it, finishing two spots ahead of where they were predicted to finish when the Pac-10 preseason media poll was released.
"We're pretty confident in them. They've been here in these types of situations, so we know that they're going to lead us the right way. We're definitely going to be OK," said Crabbe, who has learned a lot about the nature of toughness from the scrappy Gutierrez. "He's a very intense player. He works hard, and hard work pays off. He's just a good leader. He's always encouraging to everybody on the team, if they make mistakes, he just tells them to keep their heads up and make the next play. He's a great player."
Of course, the captain of the ship -- Montgomery -- has turned in perhaps the best coaching performance of his lengthy and storied career, all with a rag-tag group of youngsters and without a quartet of players he thought he'd have at the end of last season.
"It was a good experience for me, playing for a coach who's done this for many years and had great success over at Stanford," Crabbe said of the team's Papa Bear. "He came here and has a Pac-10 championship already and he's also coached at the NBA level. It felt good to learn more plays, how to get open more, how to be patient on screens, all of that stuff. He's definitely a good teacher, so I felt that coming here was good for me.
"We were already shocked that some people had us ranked low in the Pac-10, and we finished at the top, basically, close to the top, so I definitely feel like we can do some damage in the Pac-10 Tournament. We know we can compete against any team in this conference."
Cal's noon tip with USC will be televised on FSN and CSN Bay Area, and can be heard on KNEW 910 AM. BearTerritory contributor Jeffrey Dransfeldt will be on hand to cover the game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.