Cal to Play Pac-10's Best

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There is no telling exactly how it happened, but one thing is for certain: Los Angeles college basketball fans have had their world turned upside down the last month.

They have watched perennial power and local favorite UCLA steadily descend from the ranks of the Pac-10 elite, only to be replaced by usual bridesmaid USC.

The Trojans (13-6, 6-1 in the Pac-10) are currently tied for the conference lead and, if not for a one-point loss to Oregon last Thursday night, would be the only unbeaten team in the Pac-10.

Meanwhile, UCLA, which was picked by the media to finish second in the preseason polls, has fallen into a fifth-place tie with Arizona State.

So, as usual, Cal will make its three-day jaunt to Los Angeles this weekend with hopes of toppling a conference powerhouse. But this time, it is the Trojans that the Bears will seek to unseat from the top of the Pac-10 standings.

"A couple of wins gave (the Trojans) confidence," Cal coach Ben Braun said. "All of a sudden they are up in the league and the players are feeling good about themselves."

USC's rise from mediocrity has been hastened by the development of an athletic core of players.

"They've always had good players," Braun noted. "They couldn't seem to put it together (in the past). They couldn't get consistency going last season. Now they are a year older and a year stronger."

Last season, behind the inside play of current junior big man Brian Scalabrine and the three-point shooting of departed senior Adam Spanich, the Trojans finished seventh in the conference and earned a National Invitational Tournament bid.

Although Spanich's departure was a concern for head coach Henry Bibby heading into the season, the improvement of guard Jeff Trepagnier has more than made up for the loss of Spanich.

Trepagnier leads the conference and is second in the nation with 3.8 steals per contest. Couple that with his 6.7 rebounds per game and 15.8 points per game, and you begin to understand exactly how important Trepagnier has been to his team's success.

"Jeff has increased his range and that's made him a better player," Braun said. "He is an incredible athlete, and he's explosive."

Cal will try to counter Trepagnier's explosiveness by putting either freshman Brian Wethers or sophomore Dennis Gates on Trepagnier.

Assuming the Bears can shut down Trepagnier, they will still have to contend with the powerful post play of Scalabrine. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward/center has confounded defenses this year with his ability to score both inside and out.

Scalabrine is averaging 17 points per contest, while shooting a team-high 47 percent from behind the three-point arc. He averages 6.2 rebounds per contest and, as if his scoring and rebounding weren't enough, dishes out 3.3 assists per game.

"(Scalabrine) has increased his range and agility," Braun said. "He gives them an inside-outside threat."

After Thursday night's battle with the Trojans, Cal will travel across town for a Saturday afternoon date with UCLA. Although the Bruins have struggled to a 3-4 conference record, they have a number of players who are capable of turning in outstanding performances.

Freshman Jason Kapono leads the team in scoring with 15.2 points per contest, while center Jerome Moiso has averaged 14.2 points per contest this season. The Bears recognize that, despite UCLA's early struggles, they are still a potentially dangerous opponent.

"They are an athletic team who can get it going," Braun said. "They seem to thrive in transition. You can't fuel their runs."


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