When Markhuri Sanders-Frison takes the floor tonight against Oregon, he'll have a pretty hefty portion of the new Matthew Knight Arena donning blue and gold No. 10 jerseys. Upwards of 30 fans, in fact. On Saturday, the Portland, Ore., native will have an island over 50 supporters strong in the midst of a sea of orange and black at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, including his 72-year-old grandmother.
"I'm very excited. I'm going to have a lot of family and friends up there. I had to cut a lot of people off with tickets, but I'll have a lot of support up there," smiled the Cal basketball team's 6-foot-7 center. "I'm very excited to get up there and get these W's."
Junior guard Jorge Gutierrez, who went off for a career-high 34 points on Sunday against UCLA, said that the ever-affable Sanders-Frison went through the locker room asking for all the available tickets.
"He asked for all the tickets," Gutierrez laughed. "He can have mine, because I don't have anybody up there."
Today, the Bears (14-13, 7-8 in the Pac-10) will play the first of their final three regular season games with postseason participation on the line, facing the similarly-positioned Oregon Ducks (14-12, 7-7) at 6 PM in Eugene, Ore.
"I think, probably, there are three or four (teams) -- maybe five -- that could finish in fourth place," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "I think the league, right now, is actually pretty good. I think people have proved to the point where there's actually quite a few really competitive teams in the league. I would say Stanford, ourselves, Washington State, Oregon, are all pretty good basketball teams, along with USC. Oregon State is capable -- they've beaten people, too. It's better than it was when we first started. There were some bad losses and all that kind of stuff, I think, and now people are starting to play pretty competitively."
If Cal can win two of the next three games, the Bears would be in position to finish with at least a .500 record, which could be enough to gain entry into the National Invitational Tournament.
"It puts you at 9-9 (in the Pac-10), and I don't know what place that gets you in league, because everybody has tough games left," Montgomery said. "Your goal is to win every game, but you get to the point where there are certain tangible things -- we can't win a conference championship right now -- so that's not in the cards. We can win the tournament, but we can't win the regular season, so you start looking at what you can really do, realistically. You've put 27 games under your belt and you've worked to get to this point and what you've got is what you've got."
One thing is for sure: with wins over every Pac-10 team save for Washington, Cal is the last team any conference foe would want to draw in the Pac-10 Tournament from March 9-12.
"I don't know that anybody that needed to win the tournament or wanted to win the tournament would want to play us, necessarily," Montgomery said. "I don't know that they would pick us as a team they'd want to play, necessarily. Washington would, but three games in a row for anybody is tough, and I would imagine that it would be a tough challenge for us to try and play three games in three nights or four games in four nights, depending on where you finish. I think that would be very difficult for us, but any given game, I think guys feel like we can beat anybody, and I think that's true. I think that's proven itself out."
Should the Bears have to go through a three- or four-day gauntlet, they can depend on Gutierrez for some inspiration.
"I don't know what makes him tick," Sanders-Frison said. "Whatever it is, I love it. If he's going, we're going. It starts on defense, and we all see it, because he's up front and you just get going. He starts it for us. There's no one like him in the league, at all. If he were on the other team, I'd hate him. Night-in, night-out, guys hate him. We love him as a teammate. We're glad he's putting on the same color we are. He's a great teammate. He goes hard, and we love him. He goes hard in practice, too, really hard. He goes 100 percent, every game, every second."
Gutierrez, for one, isn't afraid of the challenge that may await his team in Los Angeles.
"We would play four straight days if we keep winning," Gutierrez said. "I think it's going to be hard, but I think we're going to be ready. If we get to that third day, nobody's going to be thinking about being tired."
But, first things first. Cal wouldn't have to play four days straight if indeed it manages to win out.
"We're trying to get fourth place. I'm not really sure where we're at right now, but that fourth place is available for us if we win these three games, so we're trying to get these three wins and get that fourth spot," Gutierrez said.
The Ducks are one game ahead of the Bears in the conference standings, and have really come on strong after a dismal ninth-place finish in 2010, when they went 16-16 overall and 7-11 in conference play. 6-foot-6, 245-pound forward Joevan Catron leads Oregon with 15.5 points per game, but the Ducks' offense is middling, at best, ranking sixth in the league with 69.8 points per game.
"Joevan Catron has not been healthy, so you never knew for a couple years, and he's turned out to be one of the better big guys in the league, very difficult to guard," Montgomery said. "Jay-R Strowbridge had 27 the other night. He's been shooting the ball well and he's kind of a guy that was brought in to help them from being a disaster, and he's come in and done well. They're anything but a disaster."
What Oregon thrives on, though, is pressure defense, which has swiped 8.1 steals per game -- second in the Pac-10 only to the Beavers. In fact, 25.5 percent (462 of 1815) of the Ducks' points this season have come off of turnovers.
"They're really, really hustling," Montgomery said. "They're very positive about what's going on, they seem to be playing very well together, they're not worried too much about who's scoring, they're sharing the ball and they're pretty athletic."
Oregon and Oregon State each feature pressure-based defenses, which will test the undermanned Bears over their final road weekend.
"They're not different. They're actually the same," Montgomery said. "They're both playing kind of a 2-2-1 with three-quarter-court pressure, back 2-3 zone. Oregon State, if they make their first field goal, they will drop back and go back in 1-3-1 and if it works and the team attacks it, then they'll do more of it. But, if it doesn't, then they've pretty much gone to a 2-3 zone and they'll extend it a little bit. I would say, really, they're actually very similar in the way that they're playing, other than you do have to be ready for the 1-3-1."
The Beavers actually lead the conference in steals, averaging 9.9 swipes per game, and are third overall in turnover margin at plus-2.3. The Ducks lead the Pac-10 in that particular category, with a plus-3.5 margin. However, when it comes to banging around under the basket, both squads have been found wonting.
The Bears have cleaned up on the defensive boards, leading the conference by pulling down 71.7 percent of their rebounding opportunities on the defensive glass, while Oregon ranks eighth (67.8 percent) and Oregon State comes in last (66.3 percent). One of the big reasons for Cal's dominance in that department has been the play of Sanders-Frison, who is averaging 7.3 boards per game to rank seventh in the Pac-10, with 5.2 of those coming on the defensive end.
"He's healthy. I think that he's probably discouraged relative to the fouls that he gets and the limited amount of time as a result of getting in foul trouble, so he's backed off defensively a little bit," Montgomery said. "Early on, he was trying to defend everybody; he was really a good help defender, but he's just gotten so many calls where there's been contact and it's been on him, that I think he's backed off a little bit and he's gotten a bit more tentative, defensively, which is too bad, because that was something that he'd done. He's been a very valuable low-post scorer. There's no question about that. He's caused problems for everybody and he's been a good defensive rebounder."
Having Sanders-Frison inside has opened up the wings and the perimeter for players like Gutierrez, who, Montgomery said, is a bit uncomfortable in the role of a scorer, but is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
"Last night, they needed me to score, and I'll do whatever it takes to win. I don't mind scoring, and I don't think anybody does," Gutierrez laughed. "I was getting to the basket pretty easily, so I was either scoring or passing the ball to my teammates, so I kept doing it."
Following his 34-point explosion on Sunday, Gutierrez ranks ninth in the conference in scoring, behind junior forward Harper Kamp and Oregon's Catron, who torched the Bears for a game-high 22 points, as well as eight boards and five assists on Jan. 29 at Haas Pavilion. In that game, the Ducks saw three players notch double-figures in scoring, with Tyrone Nared netting a double-double (10 boards and 14 points).
"Garrett Sim is having a good year now. E.J. Singler, of course, is solid. They've got a lot of guys," Montgomery said. "The Nared kid jumps out of the gym and gives them another athlete, so they come at you with probably nine strong and they're playing hard together."
The Beavers, on the other hand, have been a bit of an enigma. Despite falling 85-57 in Berkeley on Jan. 27, Oregon State has several signature wins on the season, including wins over three of the top four teams in the conference.
"They've been very capable. They've had some great games where they beat Washington and Arizona at home, so they've been pretty good," Montgomery said. "They're capable. They've got some guys that can really score the ball. If they were to get off to a good start and things started working well for them, I think they'd be more effective. I think that, on Senior Night, Calvin Haynes is a kid that's hurt us, as has Lathen Wallace. They can give you problems. They've just been a little bit inconsistent and they are playing a lot of guys and you're not sure who's going to do what. (Coach Craig Robinson) has had a hard time settling on a lineup that he feels is his best lineup. He plays a lot of different people. They're a dangerous team, especially coming off of a Thursday game."
Tonight's game can be seen on CSN California. Cal will face off with the Beavers on Saturday at 3 PM, a game to be televised on Fox Sports Northwest and CSN California.