Madness Starts at Maples

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They're not saying it, but they're thinking it.

They're not talking about it, but they're playing for it.

Players on the Cal men's basketball team are trying not to make a big deal of their hopes to make the NCAA Tournament. Yeah, and Xavier Nady downplays his intention to play pro baseball next year.

But there is one major difference there. Nady's a surefire first-round pick in this summer's major league draft, while the hoopsters' stretch run is tilted decidedly uphill.

The Bears (14-9, 5-6 in the Pac-10) begin their final seven-game run tomorrow at 3 p.m., when they take on Stanford (21-1, 10-1) at Maples Pavilion. While the road game against the second-ranked Card represents their toughest test of the season, it doesn't get a whole lot easier from there.

Five of Cal's next seven contests are on the road, including a game against No. 4 Arizona in Tucson. Interestingly enough, the Bears need to win at least five of their remaining games to guarantee themselves a winning conference record and spot in the Big Dance. Four wins would put Cal on the bubble for the tourney.

But as any athlete loves to tell you, the Bears are taking this one game at a time. Tomorrow's game should give them plenty to think about.

Like, how do you defend Stanford?

"That's a question a lot of coaches have been trying to answer," Cal coach Ben Braun said. "If there was an easy solution, they'd have more than one loss."

The Cardinal has won its last nine games by an average of 19.3 points. Its inside-outside game, anchored by post threats Mark Madsen and Jason and Jarron Collins along with outside gunners Ryan Mendez and Casey Jacobsen, has presented opponents with a near-impossible puzzle to solve so far.

Focusing on Jacobsen, who leads his team with 13.5 points per game, won't shut down Stanford's offense, as Cal was painfully taught when the teams last met. A raucous Haas crowd and tenacious Bears defense combined to hold the star freshman to 4-of-13 shooting, but Mendez and Madsen picked up the slack, pouring in 15 and 19 points, respectively.

"I think your players have to be committed to really answering more than one challenge," Braun said. "Can you defend just their perimeter guys? Yeah, at the expense of their post guys scoring on you. You can crack down on their post guys at the expense of their perimeter guys having big nights. I think you have to challenge your guys to do both."

Despite its obvious offensive efficiency, the Cardinal has largely gotten where it is through defense. Stanford has held opponents to 33.8 percent field-goal shooting, which is tops in the nation.

"They're not going to give you layups," Braun said. "You're going to have to score over people. They're not going to give you open shots. You may have to rotate the ball (and) work the extra pass."

When the Bears and Cardinal met in Berkeley Jan. 22, a rugby match ensued with an occasional stretch of basketball breaking out. The teams were whistled for an incredible 53 personal fouls, and both had trouble establishing a rhythm.

Cal forward Sean Lampley gave Cal its last, best hope to upset the Cardinal, scoring 14 of his team-high 16 points in the second half.

"Lampley had a stretch that was somewhat unbelievable," Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. "Lampley's a very good player, very explosive. You don't eliminate (him); you minimize, try to keep him from having a huge night against you."

If the Bears have any tangible advantage heading into Maples, it's Stanford's lack of competition over the last month. The Card's closest game since its nine-game winning streak began was a 10-point win over USC two weeks ago, and Stanford hasn't had a game go down to the wire since it suffered its only loss of the season to Arizona, 68-65.

"We feel we can keep the game close," Cal wing Brian Wethers said. "Walking into (their arena), we can't let them develop a big lead, or much of a lead at all. We're confident enough that we can play with them and beat them in the end."


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