Bears Look to Make Run Through Pac-10s

Win on Thursday Over USC Sets Up Potential Rematch Against Top-Seeded Arizona Squad

Photo: Allen Crabbe averaged 16.4 points per game in conference play to lead the Bears. The guard was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.
Anne Marie Schuler/Photo
Allen Crabbe averaged 16.4 points per game in conference play to lead the Bears. The guard was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.

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Mike Montgomery was asked to define his team after the Cal men's basketball team routed cross-bay rival Stanford on Saturday.

"We are who I thought we were?" Cal's coach quipped. He gave a more straightforward answer once the media room laughter died down.

"We're not going to win any glamour contests," he said. "We're just a gritty group of guys that has good chemistry together, and I think our roles are pretty clearly defined right now."

The Bears (17-13, 10-8 in the Pac-10) are certainly peaking at the right time. Cal comes into this week's Pac-10 Tournament at the Staples Center as winners of four straight conference games.

Yet, the Bears' blowout victory over the Cardinal on Saturday night did more than finish off the regular season in style or exact revenge over a conference rival.

Fifth-seeded Cal is will be playing games on back-to-back days for the first time since the Old Spice Classic in December, but it at least earned a friendly tournament path by beating Stanford.

Instead of squaring off against high-octane Washington, which had pummeled the Bears in both regular season match-ups, Mike Montgomery's squad draws the No. 4-seed USC (18-10, 10-8) at noon on Thursday.

"We both have confidence in beating each other," forward Harper Kamp said of the quarterfinal match-up. "We know it's going to be a physical game. Both teams are going to go hard.

"I think we're playing for something really important."

The Trojans are surging after a season-ending road win over the Huskies and have themselves a de facto home game.

Still, the Bears are no strangers to playing competitively in Los Angeles. Cal put on one of its more impressive defensive performances of the season when the team edged USC, 68-66, in January. Kevin O'Neill's vaunted frontcourt of All-Pac-10 first teamer Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson mustered just 14 combined points thanks to foul trouble and a pesky zone defense from the Bears.

For all the havoc that the 6-foot-10 Vucevic can wreak inside, his best contribution against Cal has been freeing up the Trojans' normally pedestrian outside shooters.

Already burned by a pair of diminutive USC guards - Donte Smith and Maurice Jones have combined for 13 3-pointers in the teams' two match-ups - the Bears must show discipline in sealing off the perimeter.

While they barely held on at the Galen Center despite a 24-point eruption from Smith, they paid dearly in the Feb. 17 home rematch, when the 5-foot-7 Jones racked up 22 points and five shots from long range - all in the second half.

A Cal win this afternoon could set up one of the best games of the entire tournament on Friday: a rematch with top-seeded Arizona, which just weeks ago escaped Haas Pavilion in a 107-105, triple-overtime thriller.

As the regular season champions, the Wildcats come in as favorites but with tournament's top four seeds all having beat each other, an upset champion at the Staples Center is a distinct possibility.

"We take our hit, but the Pac-10 looks pretty good," Montgomery said on Saturday. "Maybe it wasn't in November and December, there were losses that raised some eyebrows, but I think now it's pretty solid. People know how to use the people that they have.

"A lot of people are capable of winning this tournament."


Ed Yevelev covers men's basketball. Contact him at [email protected]

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