Ding, ding. Round Three. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, make your choice: Duck season or Bear season.
This afternoon at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Cal basketball team will face off against an Oregon squad that put forth a herculean effort last night, upending Washington State 82-80 in overtime to earn a third shot at the Pac-10 champs.
The rumble in the Pac-10 jungle begins today at 2:40 p.m., with the No. 8-seed Ducks (16-15, 7-11 in the Pac-10) fighting not only for their tournament lives, but for their embattled coach Ernie Kent.
"There's definitely a target on our back," said senior point guard Jerome Randle. "Ernie Kent said something about (Oregon) going to win the Pac-10 Tournament. I take that as a challenge. I don't really worry about much of that. All we need to do is just worry about California, and what we need to do to win this Pac-10 Tournament."
The Bears enter the tournament for the first time in history as the No. 1-seed, and an odds-on favorite to move on to the NCAA Tournament. The parity of the conference this season means that the Pac-10 will likely receive only one or two bids to the Big Dance, and also that neither of those two possible bids is safe.
"I think that, in a normal year, you might not give 7-8-9 or 6-7-8-9 (seeds) as good a chance as you might this year," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "You might say the top four teams might have a better opportunity because they're clearly better when four or five teams would go (to the NCAA Tournament) from the Pac-10, but I really think we'll have our hands full."
Last night, the Ducks benefitted from a gutsy 32-point performance from senior point guard Tajuan Porter, who sunk 12 of a game-high 28 shots from the floor and 3-of-10 from three-point range.
While it is unlikely that Porter will duplicate that effort-he is a 41.9% shooter on the season, averaging 6.6 points per game-the Ducks will likely pull out all the stops in order to avenge their two blowout losses to the Bears (21-9, 13-5) this season.
"We're more concerned about ourselves," Montgomery said. "The thing about the tournament is that you don't have the time to do a scout like you normally would do. We'd normally spend a reasonable amount of time preparing for the team that we're going to play against in terms of walkthroughs and working on things (opponents) would want to do. We're not going to be able to do that. But, having played them all, you have a pretty good idea of what you need to do, it's just that you're not going to have as much prep time."
The first time the two squads clashed, Cal crushed Oregon to the tune of 89-57 at Haas Pavilion on Jan. 21. Five Bears scored in double-figures, led by a 21-point effort from senior Patrick Christopher. Christopher saw his club lose the final three games last season, including the season finale, the conference tourney opener and in the first round of the Big Dance, and refuses to see today's contest as anything close to a gimme.
"We're going in to win this thing. We've talked about, as a team, last year, when we got that feeling that we were in the Tournament, and we lost three straight games," Patrick said. "Knowing that, I think having a second year (of success) under our belt and some maturity, I think we won't get complacent as a team, and I don't think Coach will let us do that, either."
Cal will need the kind of depth it displayed in January, today, and potentially throughout the rest of the tournament, as the Bears try to rest some of nagging injuries for a possible run in the NCAA Tournament.
"We've kind of made the decision to back off (Monday), and we wouldn't have had two or three guys anyway," Montgomery said. "We shot quite a bit and worked with the guys that aren't getting big minutes. Length of time is not so much what you're looking to do, but you've got to prepare for zones and presses and man-to-man and traps and switching and everything that you might see in a three-day deal."
Likely to be absent from the lineup today will be sophomore Jorge Gutierrez, still nursing a sprained toe and sprained left ankle that he suffered in the regular season finale against Stanford. However, big Max Zhang, recovering from a collapsed lung, should be on the docket for some playing time.
"We did some individual work with Max, just trying to get him comfortable with contact, so it's a work-in-progress. He should be available this weekend," Montgomery said. "Jorge did not practice (early in the week). He spent time on the bike, and I would say he'd be day-to-day."
The entire roster will likely be on-call, including the other walking wounded: Markhuri Sanders-Frison (back), Christopher (knees) and Omondi Amoke in an effort to spread minutes and increase the team's flexibility as the postseason wears on.
"We've got to win first. There's no three-game week if you don't win, so we certainly won't sacrifice trying to win a game just to rest people," Montgomery said. "If we feel comfortable sneaking minutes on either side of a time out or put a guy in and feel like we're not losing any momentum getting a guy some rest, we'd certainly like to do that. We still have the question of Jorge, the question of Max, the question of Markhuri, so you don't know whether you'll be allowed to have that luxury or not."
Without Gutierrez's high-octane spark, the Bears will have to turn to others to provide some energy, including Pac-10 Player of the Year Randle, who, along with fellow senior Theo Robertson, led all scorers when Cal dealt the Ducks a 64-49 loss at Mac Court on Feb. 20.
"Jerome has done a wonderful job," said Montgomery of his point guard, who leads the team in scoring with 18.7 points per game and has been integral to the Bears' success this season. "He is probably more skilled than I had thought he was. I never had any notion that he could shoot the ball as well as he did, and once we helped him out with being a little more careful with the ball, and not trying to do everything every time, that stuff all started to show up."
That win was the first of four straight for the Bears, who finished out the regular-season schedule winning seven of their final eight games, in sharp contrast to last season when the team went 2-3 down the stretch before two straight first-round exits in the conference and NCAA tournaments.
"We've talked about, as a team, last year, when we got that feeling that we were in the Tournament, and we lost three straight games," Christopher said. "Knowing that, I think having a second year (of success) under our belt and some maturity, I think we won't get complacent as a team, and I don't think Coach will let us do that, either."
With the program's first conference title in 50 years under its belt, Randle is not about to let the weight of expectations crush what could be a promising postseason run this time around.
"I don't feel like there's any pressure," Randle said. "You just go in, every game in this conference, you go in it to win it. We should just treat it like it's another game."
Despite its eighth-place conference finish, Oregon ranked fifth in the Pac-10 with 69.4 points per game. But even that came at a high cost. The Ducks put up 1,737 shots this season, the third-most in the conference behind the Bears and Washington. Of those, Oregon sunk just 746, placing ninth in the conference with a 42.9 team shooting percentage.
While the Ducks out-rebounded Washington State last night on the defensive glass, 23-18, they are not known as a particularly strong team on the boards, ranking sixth in the Pac-10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding.
Ball movement will also be key, as Oregon averages just 11.2 assists per game-next-to-last in the conference-and checks in at eighth in the Pac-10 in assists-to-turnover ratio, dishing out 0.88 helpers for every turnover surrendered.
"It's pretty open, but anything can happen," Randle said. "We lost to five teams in this league, so we just can't go in with the attitude like we're unstoppable. We can just have a bad night and someone's having a good night. We just need to focus on defense and execution, and I feel we'll be alright."