Around the Rim: Can the Bears Defend the Pac-10 Perch?

Nick Fradkin/File

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Entering the 2009-10 campaign, the Cal men's basketball team knew it would be able to score.

Boasting three perimeter players that helped make the top three-point shooting offense in the nation last year, the Bears have led the Pac-10 in offensive production for much of the regular season. They're currently averaging a league-best 77.8 points per game.

The bigger issue this year -- the one that still hasn't been settled halfway through conference play -- is whether Cal (14-7, 6-3 in the Pac-10) can compete consistently at that other, less glamorous end of the floor.

Yes, in order to maintain their fragile hold on first place in the standings, it seems the Bears will have to defend.

"Even if you don't shoot the ball all that well every night, playing defense collectively will be the key for us," senior Patrick Christopher said. "The weapons that we have on the offensive end are unlimited. But defensively, we're playing against great guys. ... Stopping the other team from scoring is gonna be the thing for us."

Cal's defensive trouble played a role in its 76-72 loss to Arizona on Sunday, when point guard Nic Wise tied his career high with 30 points. Wise scored the last five points of the game, converting a three-point play over point guard Jerome Randle to give the Wildcats a 74-72 lead and sinking two clutch free throws to ice the win.

"We got destroyed on the pick and roll," Christopher said. "When it was down to crunch time, we didn't defend as well as we should have."

While the Bears aren't awful at the defensive end, they have given up more than 70 points per game to Pac-10 opponents this season, which ranks their defense in the bottom half of the conference.

It's a problem that coach Mike Montgomery recognizes heading into the second half of his team's four-game road trip, which continues on Thursday against USC (12-9, 4-5) at Galen Center in Los Angeles.

"We've tried to talk about specific players that need to be guarded," Montgomery said. "Our team defense needs to get better. We tend to forget about our help positions when we get towards the end of a game. We need to be in better help position."

On occasion, Montgomery has utilized 7-foot-3 center Max Zhang to achieve that end. Against Arizona, Zhang blocked three shots and altered several others in 11 minutes of play. Montgomery said the sophomore didn't see more action because he looked tired.

"It's always a plus to have him in there," Christopher said. "Coach does a great job finding segments in the game where (Zhang) can be effective."

Quick Hits

-- When asked if center Markhuri Sanders-Frison would play this weekend in Los Angeles, Montgomery said, "Possibly." Sanders-Frison (sore back) did not travel to Arizona.

-- Christopher recorded his 100th career start against the Wildcats.

-- Randle is two three-pointers away from holding the school record in that category.


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