When senior Cal center Markhuri Sanders-Frison says that he will be facing his "biggest challenge ever," you tend to sit up and listen. Especially because those words are coming out of the mouth of a 6-foot-7, 265-pounder.
Sanders-Frison and the Bears (9-8, 2-3 in the Pac-10) travel to Los Angeles for weekend tilts against UCLA (tonight at 7:30 pm) and USC (Saturday at 7 pm), both of which feature some of the biggest lineups that Cal will face this season.
Tonight, the Bears will face a Bruins starting five that features 6-foot-10, 305-pound freshman center Joshua Smith, who reportedly tips the scales at quite a bit more than his listed weight.
"He's huge," laughed Sanders-Frison, who isn't exactly a pixie himself. "He's huge. He's a good, big player with good touch and uses his space really well. I just have to watch tape and evaluate him on how he moves his feet and just use my quickness on him."
After a brief pause to let that thought sink in, Sanders-Frison bellowed, "I get to say that! I get to say that, right? I don't think I've ever gotten to say that before! It's been a long time since I've said that."
"Smith is really big, they know how to utilize him," said the Bears' head coach Mike Montgomery. "He's somebody we're going to have to try and manage inside. If they get the ball to him in low, we've got problems. He's big, and if he turns, you can't do much about it."
In addition to Smith, UCLA (11-6, 3-2) features a frontcourt comprised entirely of players 6-foot-8 and above in sophomore center Brendan Lane (6-foot-9, 223), sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt (6-foot-8, 188) and star sophomore forward Reeves Nelson (6-foot-8, 235), a two-time winner of the Pac-10 Player of the Week this season. The Trojans
"The coaches were telling me that these are probably the biggest two teams that we're going to play in the Pac-10," said Cal freshman Allen Crabbe, referring not only to the Bruins' size, but that of Saturday's opponent -- the Trojans -- as well. "It's going to be an interesting weekend."
Of primary concern, though will be defending Smith, a duty likely to fall to Sanders-Frison and Bak Bak, but dealing with him will be more than a one-man proposition.
"If that's the match-up, then we're going to have to help, because he'll be like a fly on the wall, really," Montgomery said. "He's really big, and he's got good hands and he's got good touch. He doesn't run exceptionally well and he doesn't jump exceptionally well, but he's long. He's got long arms, so you're going to have to help some of the lighter guys in there with him, because you can't just let him catch it in the low block. The thing is to keep the ball away from him in the low block, if you can."
Montgomery went on to say that because of Smith's length, even double-teams could be thwarted due to his ability to pass out of them in the low post.
"He's got good hands," Montgomery said. "He's a skilled player. He's got good touch around the basket, he finishes, he's got good hands, he's long for a guy that size. He gets tired, and maybe as a freshman that big, you would expect that."
The Bears' rising freshman star Allen Crabbe will have to deal with Honeycutt, who is averaging 13.4 points per game and 7.9 boards.
"That's an OK matchup," Montgomery said. "They have similar body styles. Honeycutt has had some pretty big games, but it's just a matter of fouls, really, more than anything else. We can't afford to get key people in foul trouble early, because it really restricts what we're able to do. If Jorge (Gutierrez) or Harper (Kamp) or Markhuri get two fouls early, then it really changes things. We've got to protect them as best we can. I don't know what that means, depending on what the other team does."
Crabbe wasn't intimidated in the least by that prospect.
"He's 6-8, so it's going to be a job, but the coaches think I can do it," he said. "I don't think it's a bad matchup. Honeycutt is a good player, and playing against good people, I tend to step up, and I believe in myself, so it'll be a good match-up."
When the Bears first faced the Bruins last season at Haas Pavilion, Nelson scored 15 points in 32 minutes, pulled down three boards and contributed two blocks and a steal to UCLA's 76-75 win.
"Reeves Nelson, in the past, has hurt us," Montgomery said. "He's real active, very aggressive, very strong. They've got those two post guys (Smith and Nelson), and Lazeric Jones is helping them at the point guard position. He's moved (Jerime Anderson) in the starting lineup, but then they can bring him in as well."
But, for all their size, the one thing that the Bruins don't do well is shoot from the outside. In conference play, UCLA is eighth in the conference in three-point shooting percentage, making 23-of-76 (30.3 percent) of its attempts from beyond the arc, leading to the viability of potentially utilizing the zone defense in order to stop the Bruins attack.
"Certain people have tried to do that, and they're pretty patient against the zone," Montgomery said. "They don't panic, and obviously, like anybody else, they're more comfortable in man. They set a lot of screens, but you also have block-off issues when you play a zone. They have seen some zone. The Oregon schools up on that trip zoned them. For Oregon State, it wasn't a change because it was UCLA. They were doing what they do. 'SC pretty much played them man. You have to look at it, just given our depth and given the situation that we're in. I think at some point, you have to look at it just to see how some people are going to handle it.
"We'd like to be able to play man. You'd like to be able to play it for 40 minutes because that's something we've been pretty good at, but I'm sure we'll have to look at anything we can do."
The Bruins are 11-6 overall and 3-2 in conference play, coming in at third in the Pac-10 behind Arizona and Washington. They have won eight of their past 10, falling to the Huskies and the Trojans on Dec. 31 and Jan. 9, respectively.
"They've played well, they've had some good wins," Montgomery said. "They've really been hanging in there, in league. It's a group of guys, with Malcolm Lee and Anderson and Honeycutt, with Reeves Nelson, that's four starters that they have back, basically, and then they add a big guy like Smith. They're just a little bit better."
In contrast, the Bears essentially return no starters from last year's team, with Sanders-Frison and Jorge Gutierrez as the only players who saw any significant time last season. Sanders-Frison was limited by back injuries and weight troubles, and Gutierrez was mainly used to get a spark off the bench. Now, both are being looked to in clutch situations.
"He's become a go-to guy," Montgomery said of Sanders-Frison, who is averaging 10.1 points and 8.1 boards per game. "Last year, if a pass was a pork chop, he would have starved. He wasn't going to get many low post touches. Now, we need him to be a scorer, so we're getting him the ball more, and he's turned out to be pretty productive down there. He's a little like Smith, in that it's hard to keep him from getting where he wants to get, particularly when we're getting him the ball. He plays a little bigger than 6-foot-7 because he's fairly long-armed."
Gutierrez has fallen on hard times of late, as his tenacious and hard-nosed play last year has induced teams to put some of their better defenders on him during this year's conference circuit. In the past five games, the Chihuaua, Mex., native has shot just 18-for-50 (36 percent) from the field.
"Guys aren't going to have good games every time," Montgomery said. "He could have been tired. He could have been distracted, I don't know. I think people have probably been taking things away. I think people have probably been paying a little more attention to him. Maybe with Brandon (Smith) out there at the point, maybe they can take one of their better defenders and just keep Jorge from getting what he wants. Jorge has to be aggressive to get the shots. He's not just going to catch and shoot. He needs to be aggressive off the basket and he needs to be aggressive off screens. He needs to curl his screens hard. That's where he's best, and, at the end of the day, he'll end up with pretty good numbers."
This will be the first trip home for Los Angeles natives Crabbe and fellow true freshman Richard Solomon, who won a state title with Price High School last season as Crabbe took home Gatorade State Player of the Year honors.
"I think it's going to be a fun weekend," Crabbe said, "I get to see friends and family at the game, and we've talked about it and we've been waiting for this weekend ever since Pac-10 started. I get to play against some LA guys that I used to play against in high school. I've got some friends that go to USC -- Bryce Jones -- we played together on the same traveling team last year."
Crabbe, of course, made those comments on Tuesday. Early Thursday, Jones announced that he was going to transfer to another school after averaging 7.6 points per game, along with 2.6 boards, while starting 10 games for the Trojans and averaging 20.5 minutes this season. Jones said in a statement that his stint at USC didn't go exactly as he had hoped with his playing time.
So, instead of a reunion with Jones, Crabbe will just have to make do with his high school teammate Solomon, who -- like Crabbe -- has let his more aggressive side out in recent games.
Crabbe has gone off for an average of 20 points and 6.5 boards over his last four games, playing an average of 39.25 minutes per contest.
"It's coming easy to me now," Crabbe said. "The more I'm playing, the more I'm getting into the flow and letting the game come to me. I'm not thinking too much, not letting the pressure get to me. I'm just out there playing basketball. People ask if I was nervous earlier in the season, and I was nervous the first couple games, but I lost that a long time ago. It's just being more aggressive, that's all I need to do. I don't want to be known as a one-dimensional player who just shoots the ball. I want to do other things that I'm capable of doing -- putting the ball on the floor, getting to the basket, stuff like that."
Crabbe is even averaging more boards per game (5.5) than Solomon (4.4), even though the latter has a three-inch height advantage.
"I'm pretty sure that if he was playing the minutes I have, he'd have double what I have," smiled Crabbe. "Sometimes, I'll go for the rebound when he's right there, and I'll let him get it because he's bigger than me."
Last weekend, Solomon pulled down nine boards, dished out five assists, turned in two blocks and a total of 22 points against Washington State and Washington, averaging 19.5 minutes over the two games.
"I'm proud of Richard," Crabbe said. "He's taken advantage of the opportunity that he's getting and he's doing a very good job of it. If he keeps getting these opportunities again, he'll continue to grow. We always encourage each other. If I make a mistake, he tells me just to make the next play, and I'm there for him, too. When his time comes, he just steps up to the plate and takes advantage of his time, even if it's not that much. The more he progresses, the more coaches are going to trust him and put him on the floor. And he's making progress with his minutes. He's out there being productive and he's going to get his minutes. Even if 'aggressive' isn't on the offensive end, he'll go on the defensive end and he'll guard a guy that's bigger, block shots and get rebounds -- just do whatever he needs to do."
Crabbe will also have plenty of local and vocal support at both Pauley Pavilion and the Galen Center.
"I can't even tell you, but I know it's going to be a lot," he laughed. "Basically, the whole family is going to be there, a couple friends from high school. I don't worry about it being a distraction. It's going to be fun to play in front of them. Many of them haven't seen me play since high school, so I'll just get to show them the college game and what I can do out there. It's just going to be exciting. It'll also be exciting playing (at Pauley and Galen) for the first time."
Following Cal's tilt today with UCLA, the Bears will head across town to face USC (10-8, 2-3) on Saturday at the Galen Center.
The Trojans are without Jones, but do have plenty of firepower in their first season after a self-imposed postseason ban. Leading the way is 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior Nikola Vucevic, who paces USC with 16.4 points per game and 10.1 boards, ranking sixth in the nation with 11 double-doubles this season.
The Trojans' front line also features Alex Stepheson, who is tied for second in the conference with six double-doubles. The pair ranks Nos. 1 and 2 in the Pac-10 in rebounding, with Stepheson adding 8.8 board per game to Vucevic's 10.1.
"They're huge and they're skilled," said Sanders-Frison. "I'm going to earn my keep this week. That's why we play this game: for the challenges. We don't want anything to come easy. We're always looking to a new challenge to compete with. I'm looking forward to it, and I'm excited."
With that duo at the forefront, USC has won the battle of the boards in 11 of its 18 games this season, outrebounding the opposition 624-589. The Trojans, should, however, expect plenty of fight down low from Cal, which has pulled down a collective 608 boards as a team, out-boarding opponents by an average of 3.6 per game, a margin that's good enough for fourth in the conference, while USC's +1.9 margin is sixth in the Pac-10.
"I like their makeup," Montgomery said of his scrappy bunch. "They're tough. They'll fight you. There's just some things you just can't substitute. You can't substitute experience. We really don't have a starter back. Markhuri started, but he was hurt most of the year. His minutes were so limited, and Jorge didn't start. Harper didn't start before, so we're looking at a really inexperienced group of guys, as far as having been in all of these competitive situations that we're putting them in. But, they battle. They'll fight. They've got great team attitude."
• Sanders-Frison said that his feet have slowly been feeling better over the past several weeks.
"It's just day-by-day, and some days are better than others," he said on Tuesday. "I still have a lot of pain, but they're definitely getting better. I'm just getting tons of treatment and praying."
Sanders-Frison hasn't been above asking for some help from … well … above, to help heal his tootsies.
"I'm definitely praying, seriously," he laughed. "I've been talking to my grandmother, telling her to pray for my feat!"
Sanders-Frison is still dealing with pain in his calves and Achilles, but it's manageable with therapy.
"I've been doing extra light cardio on the ultra G, so that's helping me out too," Sanders-Frison said. "(Tuesday), I practiced the whole practice, and I felt good until towards the end. I started getting sharp pain and tightness, but it was my first full practice in a long time, since before this all started, and it felt great."