It's Go Time For The Blue-Collar Bears

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PITTSBURGH-Mellon Arena is certainly no Staples Center. Its brown dome fades into the dirty skyline, a sharp contrast to last weekend's Pac-10 tournament venue with its glaring purple roof and bright L.A. lights.

The Cal men's basketball team has traded in the cell-phone culture and glitz and glamour of last week's Southern California for a trip to a true blue-collar town.

This is a place that rewards hard work and working men, not the superstars and egos that pop up in places like Hollywood, Santa Monica or Malibu.

How fitting then that this year's team is not a bunch of prima donnas or banner players just waiting for a chance to bolt to the NBA.

This year's squad prides itself on the sweat and toil of its defense, its ability to back each other up when things get down to the wire, its balance and its effort. These things have brought the Bears back to the Big Dance for the second year in a row.

And these are the qualities that will dictate whether or not Cal (22-8) can top an equally dedicated and hard-nosed Penn team (25-6) today at noon in the first round of the South region bracket play.

"We play as a unit," senior Dennis Gates said. "We trust each other enough and have confidence in the person to the right or left of us to take a game-winning shot."

That confidence stems from the fact there isn't one guy that consistently makes things happen for Cal. Duties are spread out evenly and results vary on any given night.

In the Bears' double-overtime win over Oregon, it was Amit Tamir who made things happen with his 39-point display.

Against USC, when a play designed for Joe Shipp didn't go according to plan, Shantay Legans calmly drained the game-winner.

As the season progressed, Brian Wethers and Shipp stepped in to sink UCLA in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament, but not without former walk-on Ryan Forehan-Kelly tying his career-high with 20 points.

Cal's balanced play is already giving Penn coach Fran Dunphy the fits.

"I wish they only had two players we had to worry about," he said. "Their depth worries me. They've got nine guys who play more than 16 minutes a game. We don't have that."

Since the Bears lack the luxury of relying on a player who consistently creates his own shot, they have looked to transition offense and their defense to provide scoring opportunities.

Legans' ability to run the floor helps dictate the Bears' fast-paced play, something the Quakers will look to put an end to.

"They can really get up and get down the floor," Penn guard Andrew Toole said. "We just want to come out early so we can control the tempo and make them play our game."

The type of game that the Quakers will likely bring to the floor starts down low with their two junior forwards, Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong.

Onyekwe, this year's Ivy League Player of the Year, leads his team with 17. 5 points per game and six rebounds per game.

Right behind him is Archibong, who is second on the team with 14.1 ppg and 5.6 rpg. The big men's ability to crash the boards will certainly be a concern for Cal-in seven of the Bears' eight losses this season they have lost the rebounding war.

Players such as Jamal Sampson will have to step up if Cal hopes to find success on the glass. The freshman leads the Bears with 6.5 rpg and his teammates' postseason experience should help him, along with fellow Tournament rookie Tamir, prepare for today's pressure.

Last year Cal seemed tentative and awestruck in its first-round loss to Fresno State, and nerves certainly contributed to the Bears' 18 turnovers.

This year's group looked confident in yesterday's public practice, and under the watch of seniors Dennis Gates, Solomon Hughes and Forehan-Kelly appeared focused on their upcoming task.

"Our players have definitely gotten mature," Cal coach Ben Braun said. "Last year's nerves were typical of a young and inexperienced team. This year we've been a lot more consistent."

The area where the Bears have been most consistent is on defense. Cal led the Pac-10 in scoring defense, allowing only 66.4 ppg, and will have to rely on its defensive prowess to clamp down on the Quakers' three-point shooters.

Penn has had relative success from behind the arc this season and enters the Tournament shooting about 40 percent from long range. In the Quakers' last meeting with the Bears-a 74-71 Penn victory in the 1999 Golden Bear Classic-the Quakers drained 10 treys.

And although the majority of both team's players remember each other from their previous meeting, Braun noted that knowing your opponent doesn't mean anything when it comes right down to pulling out a win.

"Being familiar with a team doesn't make playing them easier," he said. "I mean, we thought we were familiar with Arizona, and look at what happened."


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