With Richard Solomon out against a feisty UCSB team, Cal fans were justified feeling nervous. When it was announced about a hour before tip time that the talismanic Jorge Gutierrez would miss the game and that Harper Kamp and Robert Thurman would play despite food poisoning, I felt that Cal went from a solid favorite to arguably a slight, slight underdog, depending on how much Kamp could give on the court.
Justin Cobbs laughed at my lack of faith, to the tune of 25 points on 10-12 shooting and spectacular defense on NBA-ready guard Orlando Johnson. Whenever you average more than 2 points per shot you probably had a pretty amazing offensive game. And to play a major role in holding the other team's best player to 9 points on 4-13 shooting? All while spending 38 minutes on the court? In his post game interview with Roxy, Monty described Cobbs's effort as 'spectacular,' which is about as strong a superlative as you'll ever hear him use.
It was a statement by both Cobbs and the Bears that this team is more than the triumvirate of Jorge, Harper and Allen Crabbe. David Kravish did an excellent job replacing Richard Solomon's rebounding and interior defense, and played 34 key minutes. Brandon Smith chipped in seven assists. And while Emerson Murray, Bak Bak and Jeff Powers didn't bring much offensively, they all kept up the defensive intensity.
It's tough to comment on this game because the only people that saw the game were those in attendance at Haas Pavilion. I must say that I wonder what kind of gameplan UCSB brought into this game, because with no Richard Solomon and Jorge Gutierrez, and with a sick Kamp, how could the Gauchos let Cal shoot 11-20 from three? Particularly in the first half, Roxy made it sound like most of the shots were more or less wide open, which means that UCSB basically let Cal easily execute their best offensive weapons under the unusual circumstances. Hopefully it was just a matter of great ball movement rather than outright negligence on the part of UCSB.
The barrage of threes broke the game open, but what won this game was the defense. A little while ago I said something about trusting Cal's offense more than the defense, but it's clear that the defense has taken a leap beyond what I expected. Cal held the Gauchos to their lowest point total of the season by fifteen points. They only had 33 points 10 minutes into the 2nd half, at which point the game was basically over with Cal up 26 points.
I'm not sure I can explain why this team is so good defensively, even without two players I would have considered essential parts of the Bear defense. Somehow, Cal never fouls, they rarely give up offensive rebounds, and they've become very very good at forcing bad shots and contesting everything. Every year Cal's teams seem more and more . . . Montyish.
This game should be a huge confidence boost to both the team and Cal fans, because the Bears dominated without 'essential' players. Cal needs Jorge and Solo long-term, but there will be games when players are out with an injury, or just ineffective. Everybody has an off-night. But maybe this team has enough around to weather the type of difficulties that make your typical Cal fan fear the worst.
So now? UNLV is up next, and they are arguably the best team Cal will play the rest of the season . . . or at least until the NCAA tournament. It's as close to a must-win as it can get against a top-25 non-conference team on the road. They will likely provide more opposition than the Gauchos . . . but they don't have Justin Cobbs!