Rarely do sports offer obvious and insightful beginning and end points, but this one is too perfect to ignore. On Janurary 2nd Cal ended the first chapter of their season with a 14 point loss to a Stanford team that clearly weren't world beaters. It was clearly the worst loss of the season. On March 5th the Bears ended the second chapter with a dominating performance that starkly illustrated just how far they had come over 17 brutal, exhausting conference games. It is probably the most comprehensive, dominating win of the season.
I have exactly one negative critique from yesterday's game: a few too many turnovers. That's it. Everything else was as good as you can ever hope to expect. With a full week of rest Monty, perhaps not surprisingly, unleashed the man-to-man and Cal completely shut down a middling Stanford offense. If you took Jeremy Green (who hit some ridiculous shots) off the Stanford roster I'm not sure the Cardinal would have reached double digits in the first half. Their 2nd leading scorer at the half? Owens, Powell, and Trotter with . . . two points each. Yikes.
The story before and after the game was
senior day Markhuri Sanders-Frison day, and MSF combined with Harper Kamp to set the tone early by immediately claiming the paint. Harper scored in all the ways we're used to - a long jumper here, a pump-fake and drive there, a pivot underneath a defender later. Markhuri claimed the glass, drew a few fouls and calmly hit all of his free throws. The message was clear: after getting burned by Dwight Powell earlier, the Bears were going to dominate inside. It extended to the bench as well, because Richard Solomon demonstrated just why most of his teammates say he's the best dunker on the team with three ferocious slams. All in all the bigs combined for 25 of Cal's 33 first half points.
If the back court had shot a bit better in the first half the game wouldn't have even been close, but luckily Allen Crabbe managed to single-handedly make up for that by blitzing Stanford for 21 points on 9-10(!!!) shooting. What was most impressive about his performance was that he totaled 24 points without relying on three pointers. One month ago Crabbe probably doesn't go for 20+ points without 4 or 5 threes. Yesterday he only attempted two! And, oh yeah, nine rebounds, plus occasionally defending Jeremy Green. It goes way beyond points with this guy.
As for Jorge Gutierrez and Brandon Smith? With MSF, Kamp and Crabbe going off for points, they contributed with great defense and distribution. We all already know that Jorge is a beast playing man-to-man, but I was impressed with Brandon Smith's effort. He's so quick, both in terms of running around the perimeter and his hands. He and Jorge combined for seven steals and generally tormented the Stanford back-court for most of the game.
Enjoy this chart, Cal fans, because it's one of the most beautiful you'll ever see. With the previously mentioned turnovers, domination across the board. I think this game was the perfect representation of Cal's ideal offense - the Bears only attempted 9 three pointers, and just attacked attacked attacked for 40 minutes. The result was a ton of points in the paint (44) and plenty of fouls drawn that led to early and often free throw attempts. The most pleasant surprise from the game was Cal's success on the offensive glass. Stanford is actually a pretty good defensive rebounding team, but Cal pulled down 11 offensive boards out of a possible 26.
And that's how you crush your rivals. I can't decide what my favorite moment of the game was. My candidates include:
-Any hammer time Richard Solomon dunks (which, by the way, mostly came from spectacular penetrate and dish plays from guards)
-Brandon Smith picking somebody's pocket and taking on two Stanford defenders for a stunning fast break layup.
-Stanford managing to turn a 5 on 1 into a Cal dunk in 5 magical seconds of failure.
-Not one but two beautiful Jorge Gutierrez touch passes on fast breaks.
-Stanford failing to secure a defensive rebound as Cal players poked and prodded the ball loose before it bounces to Allen Crabbe beneath the basket for an easy layup.
-Markhuri, leaving the game to a standing ovation
-The entire team heading to the student section to express their appreciation at the end of the home schedule, and to secure a gigantic MSF Angry Face! for locker room decorations.
Now, on to the Pac-10 tournament, where Cal will first get a another shot at USC. We've been saying all season that Cal's depth is likely a major hindrance to any chances of a run to Saturday's championship game. But with everything this team has already accomplished, does anybody really think that they're done surprising us?