When Cal signed two highly touted recruits that had played together at the same high school, Bears fans had visions of a fearsome duo that would take the Pac-10 by storm. Allen Crabbe draining threes and dishing the ball to Richard Solomon for alley oops. Solomon blocking shots, pulling down crazy rebounds and tossing outlet passing to a streaking Crabbe.
It's a beautiful vision that we have seen just glimpses of this season. Solomon, as obviously talented as he is, needed to pay his dues behind two excellent big men in Markhuri Sanders-Frison and Harper Kamp. Crabbe has gotten a ton of playing time but quite understandably has gradually grown into his talents as he gains experience.
But yesterday's game? Oh man, it was nearly exactly what I imagined, and about a year sooner than I might have guessed. True, it was Jorge Gutierrez who received Solomon's outlet pass off of a crazy rebound in between Crabbe finishing with a lay-up after following Jorge's miss. But that's just quibbling with details. The 2nd half belonged to Solomon and Crabbe, who combined for 24 of Cal's 49 points and 8 of Cal's 15 rebounds after the break.
Crabbe's performance was merely a confirmation of what we already knew: He's a lights out shooter adding more and more poise and nuance to his game every time on the court. He made nailing three pointers over OSU's swarming zone look easy - but ask last year's senior class just how easy is really is. He also showed a nice aggression that characterized the entire team's play in the 2nd half, refusing to settle for spot up threes. Solomon was a terror on the glass, and I'm sure that the five rebounds he was credited with doesn't do justice to the amount of rebounds he kept alive by batting around by using his height. Cal's big run to win the game came mostly with Solomon on the floor for a foul-plagued Markhuri. We were all concerned when MSF picked up his 4th foul so early, but in the post-game show Monty said that Solomon was the man who keyed Cal's run.
Of course, Cal wouldn't have needed the Price guys to save them if the Bears hadn't come out flat for the fifth time in six games. Washington, Washington St., USC, Oregon and now Oregon St. have all jumped out to early leads against the Bears. True, Cal came back to compete in four of them, but we're playing with fire. True, OSU's early lead was built mostly on unsustainable shooting that reverted to the mean quickly and painfully for the Beavers. But it's still a continuation of a concerning pattern. Monty hypothesized that Cal comes out tentatively because in the back of their heads they know how many minutes they all have to play. It's as reasonable a theory as any.
My theory? I'm beginning to suspect that the Bears fall behind early just to show off how tough they are. That toughness is clearly getting under their opponent's skins. Why else would Jared Cunningham needlessly elbow Harper Kamp after getting routinely blocked out? And Brandon Smith's unintentional-but-nevertheless-clumsy collision with Cunningham that probably should have been whistled really got things going. I'd prefer that Brandon and Markhuri let OSU respond with silly barking and shoving without responding to pick up off-setting technicals, but that's not in this team's DNA. When your 5'11'' sophomore point guard is bumping bodies and staring down the opposition while dishing out eight assists then you know the mean streak has permeated the entire team.
In our Oregon St. preview I highlighted the huge advantage Cal had in shooting offense and defense, and sure enough Cal shot their highest percentage from the field on the year. Watching Oregon St. play defense is fascinating, because they sell out for steals in a way I've never quite seen. On every entry pass their bigs try to jump the passing lane. It results in a batted ball or even a steal occasionally. But even more often it resulted in Kamp or Markhuri getting the ball with no defender in front of the basket. And that meant either an easy hoop or a foul drawn by the help defender, or both.
And of course OSU's zone expends all kinds of effort to trap the ball-handler, leaving a guy like Allen Crabbe open enough to hit 6 three pointers. After watching teams go out of their way to take the three ball away from Allen it was nice to watch him get his looks and hit most of them.
And so the Bears kept their turnover percentage down just enough to win the game by a safe margin. OSU's steals-at-all-cost defense meant that every pass from Jorge or Brandon resulted in either a turnover or an assist (they combined for 17). They both had some trouble with entry passes in the first half that contributed to the early deficit, but as soon as they straightened the problem out the onslaught was unstoppable.
We've talked about why this win is huge: Clinching a winning regular season, clinching at least .500 in the Pac-10, and clinching a top 6 seed in the Pac-10 tournament are all huge. But I won't be happy unless the Bears capitalize on their momentum and beat the Cardinal next Saturday. Stanford's win to open conference play was easily Cal's most disappointing performance in my mind. True, both Washington games were ugly, but the Huskies are a good team that Cal doesn't match up with. Stanford? Nobody is going to mistake them for a good team, but they still dominated the Bears at Maples, particularly in the 2nd half.
Luckily, that game was ages ago. To illustrate the point, consider: Gary Franklin played 30 minutes in that game. Since that time Cal found their identity and found their offensive game while Stanford slid into mediocrity. Now the Bears have a full week to rest up and get ready to shove Stanford off the court on Senior Day at Haas.