Dazzling Arena Doesn't Overshadow Surging Ducks

Photo: Jorge Gutierrez scored a career-high 34 points in 41 minutes in Cal's 76-72 victory over UCLA on Sunday. The junior guard also chipped in six assists and three steals in the win.
Anne Marie Schuler/File
Jorge Gutierrez scored a career-high 34 points in 41 minutes in Cal's 76-72 victory over UCLA on Sunday. The junior guard also chipped in six assists and three steals in the win.

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Search through any NCAA Tournament projection and one will be hard pressed to find a bracket that has more than three Pac-10 teams in the mix. Arizona and Washington are tournament "locks", UCLA is "on the bubble" and for the rest of the Pac-10, it will be either the NIT or CBI barring a conference tournament championship.

But don't tell Mike Montgomery that these last three games are not important.

"I told our guys that to make the postseason that we need to win two of these last three games," Montgomery said. "I'm not at the evaluation stage of the season yet."

The first of the Cal men's basketball team's final three games comes tonight at the spanking new Matthew Knight Arena against surging Oregon at 6 p.m. Having already given the Bears a good run at Haas Pavilion three weeks ago, the Ducks will likely be the most difficult test until the Pac-10 Tournament.

Oregon coach Dana Altman has almost thoroughly transformed what was a hapless squad last year into a feisty one during conference play. After their eight-point loss in Berkeley on Jan. 29, the Ducks have won four of their last five and received markedly improved play out of several players.

"They come at you with nine strong," Montgomery said. "They're playing hard together. They are really hustling.

"They're positive about what is going on and they seem to be playing very well together."

The biggest surprise of the flock has been Jay-R Strowbridge, a transfer guard from Jacksonville State. Brought to the Ducks to "just to help them from being a disaster," the diminutive shooter with big shorts scored a career-high 26 points in Oregon's 82-63 thrashing of Oregon State and has hit double figures in six of his last eight games. Strowbridge had only hit that plateau four times in the teams first 18 games.

It also comes as little surprise that Oregon has played significantly better since the opening of its snazzy arena. Stocked with some of the rowdiest fans on the West Coast and now a $227 million home, the Ducks have won four of the five games they have played at the stadium and the new abode has clearly been a catalyst in their improvement.

The arena has darkly painted trees on the court and a really dim half court line that have drawn the ire of several coaches and players. USC coach Kevin O'Neill was one of the more vocal critics of the floor's layout.

"The only thing I would say is they've got to put a center line on the floor," O'Neill told reporters after his team's 68-62 loss in Eugene. "I wouldn't have known if somebody was over and back or whatever."

Montgomery hasn't seen the floor since the arena has been fully renovated, but even he acknowledged that some key parts of the floor are difficult to distinguish on television.

"You can't (see the line). There was a backcourt violation play I saw and I couldn't see it," Montgomery said. "I knew that (the player) was in the area but I couldn't tell that he had gone backcourt."

Though the opposing crowd is one of the most hostile in the conference, Portland native Markhuri Sanders-Frison will have his fair share of supporters in the crowd for both games of the weekend's roadtrip.

"I'll have a lot of family and friends," Sanders-Frison said smiling. "I had to cut a lot of people off because I can't get enough tickets."


Gabriel Baumgaertner covers men's basketball. Contact him at [email protected]

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