California Basketball: Built on Toughness and SmartsPosted by AMurawa on February 13th, 2012
The big news out of California’s trip to Los Angeles this weekend was the Bears’ first season sweep of both UCLA and USC since the 1958-59 season, an accomplishment that left head coach Mike Montgomery mostly wondering “what’s been going on since 1958?” But the details behind that accomplishment are the important part. And paying attention to details is exactly how Cal pulled off the sweep this weekend. Against UCLA, for example, when big man Joshua Smith entered the game for the Bruins a couple minutes in, he went to work immediately, drawing three early fouls on Golden Bear bigs who were late and a bit tentative when bringing the monster double team. However, after Smith scored five points on the first three possessions where he touched the ball, Cal tightened up that double team with their forwards and got help from their guards trying to cut off the angle to feed the post. “In their offense, they really try to create angles for Smith, just because of how big his body is, and once he gets the ball in there, he can move pretty much anyone in the country around,” said forward Robert Thurman. “So, we just tried to cut off that initial angle and then the monster double was able to come and help out when he did get the ball.” As such, for the final 35 minutes or so of the game, Smith was never again a major positive force for UCLA, just one example of how the Golden Bear defense is able to X-and-O to minimize their opponent’s strengths.
That Cal frontcourt was tested significantly on Saturday, and responded with aplomb. After David Kravish and Harper Kamp both picked up two first half fouls (Kravish picked up his second at the 17:30 mark, Kamp at 8:11), Thurman and Bak Bak were called on to help out along the front line and between the two of them the provided 33 total minutes, nine points, five boards and plenty of tough defense against Smith and the Wear twins (who combined to shoot just 5-of-19 in the game). While the lack of depth along the front line is something of a concern heading into March, on Saturday it was no problem. The frontcourt as a whole may not get the accolades that the flashier backcourt gets, but they’re a big component to Cal’s success. “They’re always in the right spot, they do a great job rebounding the ball, and on defense they’re doing a great job of defending and helping on screens,” said guard Justin Cobbs. When you think of the Golden Bears, it is likely their backcourt that comes to mind first, but the front line is always producing.
While Montgomery got plenty of dirty work out of his big men, his trio of starting guards put on an eye-opening display, as Cobbs, Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez combined for 45 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds. The backcourt triumvirate played hard and mostly smart (perhaps the lone exception to that point was when Cobbs tried to throw down a dunk over one of the Wear twins on a fast break late when the Bears should have been trying to work clock), getting physical with the UCLA guards and keeping them out of rhythm for the meat of the game. The Bruin offense was so discombobulated, they registered zero first half assists and just seven on the game, while the Golden Bears provided a good juxtaposition, sharing the ball and running their offense almost to perfection at times. During one stretch at the start of the second half, Cal scored 24 points in 13 offensive possessions, including a 15-2 run to turn a tight four-point game into a blowout. The Bruins did manage a late run when Cal laid off the gas a bit, but Gutierrez, Cobbs and Crabbe were able to shut that down with solid defense and offensive control.
The long term prospects for the Bears remain iffy, though. Sitting tied atop the conference with Washington with just five conference games remaining, Cal still doesn’t have a stellar NCAA Tournament resume but it’s hard to see the Bears not getting in. Once there, they will play with intensity, fundamentals and smarts, but they’ve put themselves in a position where they’ll likely wind up with a seed in the #7-#10 range, meaning that even if they’re able to survive a tough tournament opener, they face the prospects of meeting a #1 or #2 seed on the first weekend. While Montgomery and his team definitely won’t shy away from that challenge, there just doesn’t seem to be enough pure athletic ability to beat a truly great team. Maybe if they see a soft underachieving team across the bracket from them (I’m looking at you, Baylor), they can work their way to a victory, but against a normal elite team, there’s probably not enough firepower here to get them through the first weekend.