USF and California haven't faced off in basketball since December 1, 2001. That night at the Sun Dome, the Bulls whipped the Golden Bears 79-59, ambushing them early on and then coasting to a dominant win. It was probably the best game a Seth Greenberg USF team ever played -- that Cal team reached the second round of the NCAAs, but they were never in that game. I was in the giddy student section that night, and afterwards I thought, Finally, this is an NCAA Tournament team. No, wait! This USF team can win games in the NCAA Tournament. (SPOILER: It was neither of those things.)
Obviously a lot has changed since that night, so to help us get ready for Wednesday night's NCAA Tournament play-in game, we got some help from the guys at California Golden Blogs, SB Nation's excellent and very thorough California blog. Q&A below.
JD: Are you upset to be in a play-in game after winning 24 games? KenPom LOVES you guys and all indications seem to be that Cal is underrated.
Atomsareenough: Ehh, slightly upset. Especially after our conference-mate Colorado, whose resume was considerably weaker than ours (the Buffs were not in real contention for an at-large bid) and got the auto-bid by winning the Pac-12 tournament, somehow got an 11-seed. But, it is what it is, and at least we're in the NCAA Tournament. The games we do have in front of us, moreover, are winnable, relatively decent matchups for the Bears. I don't feel like USF, Temple, or Michigan (if we make it that far), solid teams though they all are, seem likely to run us off the court or anything. I think we can hang with any of those squads. We're not a deep team, with a main rotation of six guys and maybe two or three others who get extremely limited minutes. So if we do manage to win, three games in five days could be a challenge, but that shouldn't be as much of an issue against USF.
JD: What are Cal's basic strategies on offense and defense?
Kodiak: 99% of the time, we're a straight-up man to man team on defense. In one game, we broke out a triangle and two, but that was uniquely designed to counter a team that had two primary wing scorers with nothing else. There's no reason for us to do that against your team. Although playing some zone might be tempting since your team doesn't shoot a lot of threes, it's just not something that we do well.
Against the screen and roll, we aggressively hedge out with our big and have someone else rotate over. In the post, we play more 3/4s than fronting. Usually, we'll play straight up. But if there's a dominant low post scorer, we'll use a big to big double team, our "monster" scheme.
On the perimeter, we'll usually put our best defender, Jorge Gutierrez, on whichever guard is the primary scoring threat.
Atomsareenough: Ball movement is key to Cal's offense. When we swing the ball around effectively and make the extra pass, we're usually pretty good at finding an open look or high percentage shot. Allen Crabbe is an excellent spot up shooter, so I'm sure the Bulls will try to prevent him from getting good looks at the basket from behind the arc. We don't do a lot of dribble penetration, but when we do, our guards, especially Jorge Gutierriez and Justin Cobbs, are fairly decent at dishing to a post player or finishing with a mid-range jumper. Our post guys are not really strong back-to-the-basket players, but they're wily and can exploit a mismatch if that happens. If we can also get some occasional transition baskets and manage not to turn the ball over so much (turnovers have been an unexpected problem in recent games), we should be able to put up enough points to win.
JD: What do you do best? What kinds of teams give you trouble?
Ohio Bear: Teams that are named the Colorado Buffaloes. Cal averages 71 points per game, but Colorado held Cal to 57, 57, and 59 points in three games (and won two out of three).
Atomsareenough: Also Mizzou or any team like Mizzou.
I also want to add a point on defense. If we win, you're probably going to be fuming about Jorge Gutierrez. He's a total bulldog, the kind of intense, always-hustling player that opposing fans love to hate. He's my favorite player ever to wear a Cal uniform, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.
Kodiak: At our best, we use precise execution in the halfcourt to move the ball and get a variety of high-percentage shots. We're capable of playing tough defense and using turnovers to turn into opportunistic offense. Our bread and butter play is run Jorge or Crabbe off a series of down screens to curl around at the elbow. From there, the guard either drives to the hoop to finish or dish, pulls up for the jumper, or swings it to a three-point shooter. Unfortunately, our offense has shown that it can be disrupted by tough, physical defense where guys get knocked around to where their timing is off.
Ultra-quick, deep athletic teams with three or more dynamic backcourt scorers give us trouble. With our short rotation, we're just not built to run and gun all game long.
JD: How did Richard Solomon being declared academically ineligible affect the team? It looks like the Bears weren't a very deep team to begin with, and now even less so.
Atomsareenough: Your question pretty much hits the nail on the head. We're not deep, and yes, the loss of Solomon really hurts. On the plus side, true freshman David Kravish has had a quietly impressive season stepping into Solomon's starting role, so we're really looking forward to seeing him blossom over the next couple of years, and walk-on big man Robert Thurman has been surprisingly competent and has showed the ability to finish strong around the basket, so perhaps that helps us with depth next year. Solomon's athleticism and rebounding have been sorely missed, though.
JD: How weird was it for you all to hire a coach (Mike Montgomery) who spent 18 years at Stanford?
Atomsareenough: It was slightly weird at first, but I think we all love Monty now. There are certain former Stanford coaches that I couldn't possibly stomach at Cal (Harbaugh), but Montgomery isn't one of them. He's classy, he's smart, he's got a wry sense of humor, he's a straight shooter.... and he has a professorial kind of persona, which fits our school very well. Also, he's an excellent coach and teacher of the game. We wish he could recruit a little better, but the guys he gets all play hard and they play smart, tenacious, sound basketball, and it's a total joy to root for them, even if it's not the flashiest group of guys in the world.
JD: Care to predict the outcome?
Atomsareenough: USF seems to be a very slow-tempo, defensive oriented team, so this has the makings of a slugfest. I'm going to say 51-47, Bears.