Bears Prepare for Warren, Rebels in NIT Opener

Anne Marie Schuler/Senior Staff

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Former Cal floor general Jerome Randle plays across the globe in Turkey. Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas will be in Charlotte, N.C., for an NCAA first round game.

Yet, shades of both players will be present at Haas Pavilion Wednesday night when the Bears open NIT play against Ole Miss at 6 p.m. Fourth-seeded Cal (17-14, 10-8 in the Pac-10) must contain 5-foot-10 senior guard Chris Warren if the team hopes to advance past the Rebels (20-13, 7-9 in the SEC) and though the game marks the two squads' first ever meeting, scouting Warren does bring up familiar faces.

"He's fast - he's really fast," said Brandon Smith, who will be responsible for guarding Warren in man situations. "He's capable of putting the ball up at any time, a la Jerome last year. He's a combination of the two. He works very well off ball screens, and I would compare that to Isaiah Thomas."

Mike Montgomery shared similar sentiments about Warren, who paces fifth seed Ole Miss in scoring with 19 points per game and lit up South Carolina on the road for 33 in February.

"In the open court he's very quick with the ball, so if you don't get back he'll just blow by us ," Montgomery said. "But I think he'd rather shoot the jump shot. He's not as quick as Jerome in and out, but he's a little bit like (Randle) in that he can get a shot kind of when he wants."

Warren isn't the Rebels' only threat. Andy Kennedy's club boasts an athletic 6-foot-6 shooting guard in Zach Graham, as well as a long, formidable front line in Reginald Buckner and Terrance Henry. Montgomery wouldn't compare the duo to USC's Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic, who gave the Bears so much trouble defensively at the Staples Center. Still, he did point out Buckner -- a 6-foot-9 sophomore with a school-record 95 blocks on the year, including eight in one game -- as a player who could cause problems.

"He blocks shots one man removed he won't even be guarding the guy," Montgomery said. "We've got to get them off their feet and get to the line. Releasing the ball from beneath the rim is not gonna work so well."

The Bears will certainly be tested by a squad that split with SEC tournament champion Kentucky and also defeated a tournament team in Penn State. Cal's challenging bracket, which includes notable NCAA snubs in Saint Mary's and Colorado, is indicative of a revamped NIT field. This year's tournament features 23 teams that have reached 20, as well as 14 regular season champions who did not win their conference tournaments.

"The notion that a game in the NIT is easier than a game in the NCAA is not accurate," Montgomery said."You're playing winning teams with winning records, and you've got your hands full regardless of who you play.

There are certainly a number of teams that ... are better than the teams in the NCAA."


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

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