Cal football doesn't usually struggle with Arizona in Berkeley (Tuscon is another, far more bitter story), so beating the Wildcats in football doesn't illicit too much excitement. Beating the Wildcats in basketball? Now that's rare, as Cal was sporting a 2-18 record against Arizona over the last 10 years coming into last night's game. I derive special pleasure from watching Arizona go down in Haas, partly because it happens so infrequently, and partly because Lute Olson's teams were such whiners when things didn't go their way (I'm looking at you, Luke Walton.) Of course, things generally did go their way, especially because the refs had just a liiiiiiiiitle more respect for Lute Olson than they did for Ben Braun. That's why games like the 2004 victory over a ranked UA team stand out, with freshman Leon Powe going for 21 & 12 fouling out Channing Frye in the process.
If Friday night's 69-55 victory was special and memorable, it was for different reasons. There's such a history of futility against these punks that 10 straight victories at Haas wouldn't seem repetitive. I also really enjoyed saying "The game's over! Your players are on the bench! Time to leave," to some loudmouth Arizona hecklers sitting in the middle of a Cal section when, with about 2 minutes left and Cal up a 15 or so, the Arizona coach pulled out Jordan Hill, Nic Wise, and Chase Budinger. But instead of savoring a rare upset victory against a powerhouse opponent, as we occasionally experienced in the later Braun years, I left Haas with a newfound sense of confidence and optimism. This didn't feel like a single happy blip in an otherwise lost season; it felt like the beginning of things to come.
I felt pretty good a year ago, sitting at 1-0 in conference play after an inspired victory over USC and some decent heckling of OJ Mayo ("Slice it OJ! Stab it through the hoop!"). Two days later Cal fell to UCLA, and there's a decent chance we'll lose to ASU tomorrow, as they bring the conference's best player, James Harden, across the bay after walloping Stanford last night. Still, this victory felt different than previous wins against Arizona, or last year's conference opener against USC. Cal looked good. They looked confident, in control. They clearly had a game plan (what a concept!) and decisively executed it. If they didn't have Arizona's talent (and they don't: Chris Mullin was sitting in the front row scouting Arizona's next lottery pick, forward Jordan Hill), they more than made up it with coaching, defense, and efficient ball movement.
Arizona played a 1-1-3 zone for most of the night, in order to protect Hill, Budinger, and Wise from chasing Cal players on defense. Arizona doesn't have much depth behind their 3 stars, and to keep them on the floor for 39, 39, and 34 minutes, as they respectively did last night, Arizona needs to limit their fatigue by playing a zone. Cal knew how to attack it. Harper Kamp received the ball in the high post, occupying the middle of the 3 baseline defenders. He then gave a bounce pass to a cutting wing (generally Patrick Christopher, who matched his uniform with 23 points) who found the basket unobstructed, with the post defender occupied at the top of the key and the baseline wing defender late to leave his perimeter responsibilities. Kamp had a career high 5 assists using this play, all in the second half. When Arizona started sagging their perimeter defenders, either to stop Randle from getting to the basket or to prevent against back door cuts from Cal wings, the Bears showed great patience and spacing to knock down three pointers; Theo Robertson was 3-5 from beyond the arc, making all three (I believe) in the second half. It was remarkable to watch a Cal team employ and execute an offensive game plan with such patience and precision; it reminded me of watching a senior laden WSU team systematically destroy Cal in the second half at Haas last year. Being on the other side was a new, pleasant experience.
Arizona's zone kept their stars on the floor but could not ultimately mask their limited depth. The Wildcats eventually cut Cal's second half lead to 4 with under 10 minutes to play, but did so with Randle and Christopher enjoying an extended rest on the Cal bench. Once Randle and Christopher returned, they wasted little time in breaking the game open against the fatigued Wildcats with a collection of open threes, back door dunks, and a wicked alley-oop.
Patrick Christopher has always been a good player - he was rated among the top 50 recruits 3 years ago, contributed a bit as a freshman, and enjoyed a breakout year with 15 points per game last year. He is now a really good player. He's the most athletic player on the team (save perhaps for a 5'6 Jerome Randle), and gets 1-2 alley-oops a game from Randle as they run the floor in transition. He's become a decent shooter (2-4 from beyond the arc last night) and is a great finisher from 10 feet in, scoring from the baseline with a variety of runners, banks, lay-ins, and dunks. Perhaps most importantly, he has become our lock-down defender, repeatedly staying in front of ball handlers as they try to drive to the rim.
He checked Chase Budinger for a large portion of the game and held him to 9 points, most of them coming before he rejected Budinger's baseline jumper late in the first half. Budinger disappeared for the rest of the game. I had heard rumors that Budinger is soft, and was curious to find out why. The reason: Budinger is soft. He doesn't play much defense and looked really uncomfortable taking the ball to the hoop. He gets knocked around pretty easily and seems afraid of going for balls in traffic. Basically, he's an easily intimidated jump shooter. I'll take Patrick Christopher.
As Monty put it, "Patrick is taking it personal, taking some pride in his defense." He's unquestionably Cal's best player, and while he's not as dominant as Powe or as smooth offensively as Anderson, he may be Cal's most complete player in a while.
If you're going to the ASU game on Sunday (only $15 bucks if you're a football season ticket holder!), you'll see an great match-up when Christopher defends James Harden. Unlike Budinger, Harden is not just a jump shooter, and it will take Christopher's best effort to hold Harden below his 23 point per game average. Randle and Robertson will likely take the lead offensively so Christopher can keep his legs for the defensive end.
A win against ASU would put Cal in great position to hit the 9-9 conference mark the likely need in order to make the NCAA tournament. A few months ago, this seemed very unlikely, and if you haven't seen Cal play this season, you owe it to yourself to check them out. Unlike seasons past, last night's good start might lead to bigger things.