Ring the bell, folks. It's Pac-10 tournament time and the rubber match for Bears versus Trojans. Both teams enter the fray playing some pretty solid basketball. Since Allen Crabbe's return, our guys have been on a four-game winning streak. 'SC has been arguably even hotter, winners 5 of 6, including big victories against Arizona and Washington.
The first meeting between the two teams featured the Bears stealing one in the Galen Center. Using solid inside play from Harper Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison, the Bears kept Nikola Vucevic on the bench with foul trouble and managed to survive Donte Smith's 3-point onslaught. Jorge Gutierrez made just enough hustle plays combined with some clutch shooting from Allen Crabbe for Cal to pull out a 68-66 win.
Game #1 preview and recaps here and here.
In part deux, the Crabbe-less Bears got off to a sluggish start. This time, it was Vucevic and Stephenson who won the battle down low while Kamp and MSF struggled with fouls. Although, the Bears fought back in the 2nd half, they were unable to get enough stops; especially when diminutive guard Maurice Jones microwaved us with an array of consecutive layups and three-pointers. MSF's first two 3's in a Cal uniform kept the margin respectable, but it was the Trojans who prevailed 78-75.
Game #2 preview and recaps here and here.
But this is the time of year where you throw the records out and forget about past games. It's one and done time with both teams clinging to the faintest of hopes that a nice run in the conference tournament could elevate them onto the bubble of the Big Dance. If you thought the last two games were hard-fought affairs, get ready for an all-out brawl.
Although the spread gives the Bears a 2-pt edge, kenpom predicts a slim Trojan victory. Meh. I never liked math, anyway.
The Trojans have been getting it done all year with hard-nosed defense and a steady dose of Nikola Vucevic. He's been a double-double machine while getting solid contributions from his front-court mate, Alex Stephenson. Marcus Simmons has been the league's best defensive stopper, and guards Maurice Jones, Donte Smith, and Jio Fontan are all capable of putting up big numbers on any given night. In particular, Jio Fontan seems to have overcome his mid-season slump and is playing like he belongs in the Pac-10. When 'SC has struggled, it's typically been when their perimeters players have gone ice cold. Considering that Cal has been lit up twice now by two different Trojans, don't expect us to believe the reports that 'SC struggles against zone defense or has inconsistent outside shooters. The stats show a slim Cal advantage in most offensive categories. However, the numbers also show that the Trojans have been playing significantly better defense for most of the year. The x-factor would be the "neutral" location for this game...which just so happens to be in southern California.
1) Kamp/MSF vs. Vucevic/Stephenson. Our headliners will determine who takes the season series and survives to play another day. We had the edge in the first game while they came out ahead in the second. It's probably too much to ask the refs to break with tradition and call this one even. So, our guys will have to play smart, especially when helping out on dribble penetration. Besides missing his obvious scoring production during the 2nd game, not having Crabbe's defense and rebounding really put a lot of pressure on Kamp/MSF because his replacements were repeatedly beaten off the dribble. It will be really interesting to see how Monty choses to play this one on defense. He had some luck during the 1st game using Bak Bak as the 3rd big man in a zone to deny entering the ball to the Trojan bigs. On the other hand, the team seems to be revitalized lately when challenged to play straight up man. There's no point in saving your legs if you don't win this game, but he's got to be thinking that playing games on consecutive nights won't be easy on his short rotation.
My guess is that he's going to start with man, try to deny the post, and double off of Simmons (their worst scorer) when they do get it inside. I'd still expect that we'll mix in some zone to keep them guessing and might go to it sooner rather than later if Kamp/MSF picks up early fouls or as change of pace when Bak Bak/Solomon enter the game.
2) Crabbe vs. Simmons. In the last few games, Crabbe has been averaging over 20+ points. Besides shooting lights out from 3, he's shown the ability to pump-fake, pull-up, shoot the runner, or take it all the way to the rim. Simmons is the reigning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. We've seen the Cal offense grind to a halt at times when Crabbe isn't able to open things up for the other guys. Here's hoping that Crabbe doesn't let Simmons take him out of the game and force him to become a passive spectator.
3) Jorge versus...All of them. 'Cuz you know that's his mindset. (Homer alert: My money's on Jorge.)
Keys to the Game:
1) Win the low post and avoid getting our bigs in foul trouble. 'Nuff said here.
2) Play two halves. We know the half-time speeches and spirited comebacks are very Hollywood-friendly, but this would be the time to dial up that A-game.
3) Defense, Bears! Defense! Besides Vucevic, the Trojans are not a great offensive team. However, we seem to find ways to get their guys going. We need to deny dribble penetration, avoid giving them anything easy, and minimize their 2nd chances.
4) Bench Production. We're looking at you, Mr. Solomon and Mr. Bak. Time to step up.
Forgive me, but is it wrong that I like our chances? I love this team - we're tough, generally execute well on offense, and are improving defensively. Crabbe and Solomon are playing their best ball at exactly the right time. We can worry about fatigue or post-season formulae later. Let's take this one. Go Bears!