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California 89, New Mexico 64: Golden Bears Win A Big Game

(Haha, you see what I did there? I admit I amaze even myself.

Kodiak and I combined on this recap. Much props to him. 113th Big Game recap coming later tonight.)

Although the Lobos hung with the Golden Bears for the first 24 minutes, Cal eventually imposed their defense on their opponents and took New Mexico completely out of it. Despite the exasperatingly low Haas turnout hampered by the weather, the late start time and some other sporting event earlier that day, the Bears looked totally at home and unfazed by playing an opponent that had just beat up Arizona State. Cal shot 52.5% from the field (compared to 38.8% for the Lobos), committed only 11 turnovers (18 for the Lobos), and 17 second-chance points (7 for the Lobos).

The real star was the team defense; generally keeping their men in front of them, swarming them into the help, keeping New Mexico from getting to the rim, and knotting crucial rebounds, Cal made it clear there would be few easy baskets in this one. There was great defensive intensity early.  Guys fought through screens, swarmed the ball and showed off active hands.  Really good energy for a young team.  Veterans like Kamp and Gutierrez set the tone; young guys did a much better job closing out after struggling their first few games.

There was also a concerted effort to push the ball after NM misses.  It worked great, since the young guys look most comfortable running the floor instead of running a set offense.  The solid defensive glasswork is the key.  MSF and Kamp made some nice outlet passes and helped initiate a full-court attack. With a lineup starring Kamp, Franklin, Crabbe, Brandon Smith and Richard Solomon, Cal locked down on the Lobos, exploding on a 20-4 run to blow open a 43-41 contest. They were never seriously threatened after that juncture and were on cruise control the rest of the night. Three times this year Cal has played so-so first halves only to follow it up with strong second half performances to blow it open.

Harper Kamp had his best game of his Golden Bear career, picking up 25 points and six rebounds, Kamp displayed an array of post moves including jump hooks, bank shots, and put-backs (he was apparently watching Jamal Boykin attentively last year). Additionally, Kamp coordinated the defense, made great passes on offense, set solid screens, played great help defense, and was everywhere he needed to be.  If you can call a 20+ career high quiet, that's what Kamp was, but he was like iron all night.

Markhuri Sanders-Frison was pretty good early on. He blocked shots, boxed out, played help defense, then drew a charge. He didn't have the agility and stamina to do that last year. However, he was a bad matchup against a pretty small Lobo lineup as the game wore on, and Montgomery seemed to go away from Sanders-Frison. MSF wasn't having a bad game, he just didn't seem to be a great matchup for the speed of the Lobos. Both Kamp and MSF did initiate well out of the high post, although they struggled to make their open jumpers as oppposed to getting their points in the paint.

Jorge Gutierrez provided an efficient  20 points (on only nine shots from the field!), six rebounds, three assists, three steals. He swarmed the passing lanes and provided his usual aggressive off-the-ball defense that drives opposing guards mad. He's also showing that he's really dangerous pushing it on the break - he's strong enough to finish through contact. This put a lot of pressure on New Mexico to defend.  I don't know how he doesn't turn it over, but I'll take it.  It'd be nice if he hit his free throws, though. 

But despite the numbers, Jorge probably wouldn't have been able to produce as efficiently if  Smith hadn't made such impressive strides. Smith had his best game as a Golden Bear and showed the semblance of an offensive game, taking contact and finishing with authority. In fact many of the highlights of the game came from Smith taking some tough contact and finishing. This included a coast-to-coast, fastcourt, absorb contact and convert AND-1 layup and a crucial dish to Solomon for the dunk to give Cal a two point lead before halftime. He nailed open jumpers as well, giving him an added dimension he simply lacked a year ago.

Having both Smith and Jorge give the big guys two different options for outlets on the break, and allows Jorge to focus his energies more on the defensive end. Monty has done a nice job early in the year playing the balancing act between coaching Smith up, and giving him the freedom to play without fear. He has some start/stop and change of speed that frees him up.  I hope he can sustain this type of effort.

Gary Franklin added 16 points, much of that coming on four triples. But he does take circus shots (that between the legs fadeaway felt like vintage Patrick Christopher). and he was lucky to get a lot of those to go in. He does use his strength to get to the line, although his technique could use some work. Still, it's nice to see he's aggressive in his shot-taking, even if he's due for an off-night.

Allen Crabbe, by contrast, doesn't seem comfortable or confident enough yet. His development might take time, because while he works well within the confines of the offense, he still has to take advantage of more of his opportunities. His defense is steadily improving though, a pretty good sign.

Solomon has been solid working off the action of the point guards. He continues to look more comfortable knowing where he's supposed to be on both offense and defense, converting that pass from Smith into a dunk and also stuck the open long baseline jumper.  Are there shades of Ryan Anderson/Sean Marks/Amit Tamir's outside shooting touch in Devon Hardin's body?

Bak Bak struggled.  One such stretch was pretty ugly. He had a turnover on a bad pass feeding the post.  Then he lost his man and gave up an open 3.  He sat for awhile, but when he came back, he proceeded to (a) give up an open corner 3, (b) turn it over again on a bad feed, (c) comes back on D and gives up a layup off the pick and roll, (d) doesn't turn around for a pass and commits a turnover, (e) comes back on D, doesn't close out, gives up a 3.  Rough day for Bak.  Like many young players, it looks like when he makes a mistake on offense, it carries over to his D.

According to the radio broadcasters, Alex Rossi reportedly has a sports hernia and may be out for the year has a lower abdominal injury and is out for a few weeks (thanks for exaggerating Kodiak. Sheesh.).  Tough news if true, but he probably wasn't going to contribute too much to Cal's lineup this season.

Not everything was peachy. Cal gave up a lot of corner threes to New Mexico and kept them in it early when the Lobos were playing sloppy. Cal also missed another 14 free throws, which you figure will bite them down the road.

The play of the game? Has to be Solomon crashing for an offensive board, dives for the loose ball, then Jorge steals it...Turns into a layup and one.  You know, the guys are going to do some sloppy, raw, crazy things this year...but you have to love these young Bears.  I shouted and nearly dumped my laptop on the ground when I saw this play.  

All in all, it's a great win for the Bears. It makes you think they're capable of a lot more than we expected them to be capable of coming into the season. Of course we should guard ourselves from getting overexcited and wait until we see how this team does in the Old Spice Classic, but it's a good start for a team with plenty of upside. Let it unfold.