BERKELEY -- Tonight the Cal basketball team continues its four-game home stand with an 8 PM tilt against Pac-10 cellar-dweller Arizona State, a team more than ready to pay the Bears back for a 64-61 home loss in the desert on Jan. 6.
That game marked the beginning of a coming out party of sorts for true freshman wing Allen Crabbe, who scored 17 points for the second straight night following the departure of freshman Gary Franklin. The Sun Devils (9-12, 1-8 in the Pac-10) also surrendered a game-high 21 points to junior guard Jorge Gutierrez and 13 points and a game-high 11 boards to senior center Markhuri Sanders-Frison.
"I think they're going to focus more on Allen, to be honest," said freshman Richard Solomon. "They're going to pay him a little more attention. I think they're probably going to zone us a little bit more and try to take Allen and take Kuri out of the game."
The physical big man Sanders-Frison has upped his points and rebounds per game since conference play started. Sanders-Frison averaged 9.2 points and 8.2 boards in nonconference, and is scoring 12.9 points and pulling down 7.6 rebounds in conference play while hobbled by plantar fasciitis in both feet and a touch of tendonitis in his ankle.
But it has been Crabbe who has shown the most marked improvement, especially for a first-year player. Crabbe has become far more assertive since conference play started, upping his shooting percentage from 43.3 to 47.4 percent and taking an average of 10.8 shots per game as opposed to his 7.5 shots per game in nonconference games. Against Pac-10 opponents, Crabbe is averaging 16.3 points per game. In the preseason, he averaged a paltry 8.5.
"I can't speak for Allen as far as what the reason for that is, but it happened around the same time, so that's definitely the way it looks," said junior power forward Harper Kamp. "Maybe having one less guy shooting the ball, one less guy that we have to worry about, makes the roles more defined."
Crabbe's 16.3 points per conference game rank sixth in the Pac-10, and the 6-foot-6 shooter out of Los Angeles has seemingly coming into his own since Franklin left the team, just before that weekend in the desert.
"Gary Franklin out, that's ancient history," said head coach Mike Montgomery. "We have people now that clearly know what their roles have to be. Brandon (Smith) knows he's going to play a lot of minutes. Allen knows that he has to score the ball. Jorge knows that he's going to play the off guard most of the time. It has put them in a position to just get comfortable with that. From that perspective, it's clarified what has to happen, and we don't have a lot of alternatives, so it's not like we can do anything else."
One of those alternatives, of course, is the Mesa, Ariz., native Kamp, who leads the Bears with his 14.5-point scoring average. In Pac-10 play, Kamp has led the Bears (12-9, 5-4) with a 16.3 scoring average, and sees the team improving day-by-day as Cal moves into the second half of conference play.
"I think, at this point, teams can counter each other all day," Kamp said. "The coaches have their master plans and they try to take stuff away from each other. For us, at the end of the day, it's who shows up. We have to show up with that energy, and that's going to be the X-factor. If we got guys stepping up on the bench that are contributing, if we've got guys that, from starters on down, who are going in there, hustling, getting loose balls and rebounding and playing defense, we've just got to play hard, and that's what's going to set us apart."
The 6-foot-9 Solomon went even further, saying that the Bears have a good shot at the conference title if everything falls into place. With five of its remaining eight Pac-10 games coming at Haas Pavilion, Cal certainly has a chance.
"I honestly think we can win. I think we can win the Pac-10 championship," said Solomon. "It's easier said than done, obviously. If we just keep working hard -- and we're working hard, too -- if we just keep pushing ourselves, just fighting as hard as we can, playing as hard as we can, not backing down to anybody, I think we can accomplish big things."
That journey starts tonight against an Arizona State team that not only lacks conference wins, but size, as well.
The X-factor against the Sun Devils will be the fact that the Bears will have a rare size advantage in the low post, with the Sun Devils featuring 6-foot-7, 210-pound freshman forward Kyle Cain and 6-foot-6, 206-pound senior guard Rihards Kuksiks in the front court, compared to Cal's 6-foot-8 Kamp and 6-foot-7 Sanders-Frison.
"We don't go up against many teams where we have a size advantage, and we have a little bit of one there and we've got to take advantage of that," Kamp said. "You've got to take advantage of your strengths. It's always going to be an emphasis of ours. We're going to try and hit the glass hard and I'm sure they'll adjust and they'll try to take that away. We've just got to go a little harder."
Arizona State has the second-worse scoring offense in the conference (63.8 points per game on the season), the Pac-10's fourth-worst shooting percentage (42.3 percent) and is the worst rebounding team in the league, pulling down 32.4 percent of boards on offense and 36 percent on defense (10th and 8th in the Pac-10, respectively). The Sun Devils are last in the conference in rebounding margin, giving up an average of 3.6 more boards per game than they pull down. At the free-throw line, Arizona State is particularly dreadful, hitting just 63.9 percent of their free throws on the season.
When it comes to defense, Arizona State is the third-worst in shooting percentage defense in the conference, allowing opponents to hit 42.8 percent of their field goals.
The Sun Devils have been snake-bitten with the injury bug all season, losing leading scorer Trent Lockett (14.7 ppg) to a sprained big toe on the road trip to Oregon, senior point guard Jamelle McMillan for both home games against the Bay Area schools and the Jan. 12 win over Tulsa due to a groin injury and the duo of sophomore Carrick Felix and junior Brandon Dunson for their 78-61 loss to Washington State due to illness. Felix was averaging 13.6 points per game (tied for the team lead) and 3.6 boards in 31.2 minutes in the previous five games, shooting 14-of-18 (77.8 percent) from the free-throw line over that stretch.
However, over the past seven games, Arizona State has benefitted from the play of returning first-team All-Pac-10 guard Ty Abbott, who is averaging 17.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 34 minutes during that stretch. Over that same span, Abbott has hit 27-of-55 three-pointers (49.1 percent) and has tallied 21 assists.
Despite having won five of their past seven games, Montgomery thinks that his Bears still have a ways to go, particularly in identifying shooters like Abbott.
"We can rebound the ball better. We're not a great offensive rebounding team, although we've had some games where we've been pretty good," he said. "I think we can defend a little bit better in terms of locating three-point shooters. We're protecting certain areas defensively, but then we're not necessarily always identifying key people that we'd like to identify. Point of attack is a problem, some. We have games where we turn it over more than I'd like. There's just stuff."