And so, they meet again.
California (5-0) will take on Syracuse (5-0) on the second day of the Maui Invitational, less than a year after the Orange dispatched the Bears in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at then-HP Pavilion (now the SAP Center) with its vaunted 2-3 zone defense.
"They beat us in the NCAA Tournament, and I look forward to it, and so do a few guys on the team who played last year," said senior guard Justin Cobbs. "We're eager to play against that zone again. Last year, I think we were a little shell shocked by it."
Cobbs was a bit turnover prone on Monday against Arkansas's pressure defense, committing four of Cal's 18 turnovers. That can't continue against No. 7 Syracuse, which has forced an average of 17.8 turnovers this season.
"Anything other than what we did last year would be a starting point," head coach Mike Montgomery said of the prospect of playing the Orange, following Monday's 85-77 win over the Razorbacks. "Last year's zone that Syracuse played, because I played them more than once, I thought it was the best zone that I've ever seen them play. They had tremendous length on the perimeter and obviously the game plan, they know what they want to do. We're going to have to attack it a little more intelligently. We'll have to be more aggressive it seems. Our perimeter guys will have to be more confident with the ball trying to drive the seams. There are openings in it. We have to capitalize on those.
"But you have to be patient. You can't get frustrated. You can't turn it over for run outs. We did that a little bit. We have not played against much zone this year, so, frankly, we didn't prepare as if we were going to play Syracuse specifically. We thought that would be -- so we worked against pressure. So we're not going to have a long time to prepare for it. That's where Syracuse has an advantage. They don't have to prepare anything. They just play the zone. It's a very good zone and it's obviously proven to be very successful over the years. There are weaknesses. We know where they are. We've just got to exploit those."
In last year's contest against the Orange, the Bears shot a miserable 4-for-21 from three-point range, trying to shoot Syracuse out of the zone. That clearly didn't work. Strong, aggressive guard play – particularly from Cobbs and the other ball handlers (Jabari Bird and Tyrone Wallace), and getting athletic big men down low will be paramount, chief amongst those being Richard Solomon, who pulled down seven rebounds while scoring 11 points on Monday.
"There'll be a lot more competition for balls," Montgomery said. "Although, a lot of the rebounds Rich is getting come at the defensive end, and theoretically he's on the inside to start with. He's as athletic as most kids in the country going up and getting the ball. I would think offensive rebounds may not be as easy to come by, but defensively, he's on the inside, and if he's not tired, he'll release and go get the ball. Of course, that's all predicated on them missing. We're hoping that happens."
Solomon, of course, was far from the biggest story on Monday, where fellow forward David Kravish had his best game of the season, shooting a staggering 8-for-12 from the field, 1-for-1 from three-point range and making both of his free throws.
"Kravish had a great game," Montgomery said. "Kind of his type of game where based on the way they were playing with quickness and getting out after it left David some lanes to the basket, and as a result, he was able to have a really nice game.
Kravish did that, all while pulling down 15 rebounds, leading all comers with three blocks and committing not a single turnover.
"Richard and I take it upon ourselves to really try to control the glass and bring it," Kravish said. "When he goes out of the game, I feel like I really have to step it up. So when he was in foul trouble, I had to step up my game and keep playing physical, keep playing hard and grabbing every rebound, so that's what I did."
The big men will be important, to be sure, but this season, Cal seems at least to be a better-shooting team than last year's group, shooting 37.1% from beyond the three-point line to last year's 30.2%, and 45.6% from the floor, compared to last year's 44.4%.
"Myself, Richard, David, Tyrone – guys who have played against that zone – know that we can't sit back on the perimeter as we did before, and shoot 25-footers and 26-footers," Cobbs said. "We have to be aggressive in that zone and treat it like it's just a man, and create two and draw in three and so I think we're very prepared for that zone."
While shooting the Orange out of the zone may at least be a flicker of an option, that may not be the best tack for a young team, particularly one in which its more promising shooters – Wallace and freshman Jordan Mathews -- can and have gone cold at times.
"Well, we're kind of kidding those kids about they're not going to get callouses from passing the ball. Tyrone made a comment kind of going around that we've got a lot of guys that like to shoot, and we do," Montgomery said. "That's kind of what they're used to, so there's a learning curve, in terms of making others better, and if you do, you might get the ball back, and that kind of stuff. That's something that just has to kind of get figured out, but there's good plays and bad plays and there's good shots and bad shots, and I don't think we've quite gotten to the point where they've figured out, ‘Maybe I need to pass on this one and wait for the next shot, because it's the better one.' I've asked the kids: Is that the best shot we can get, or the first shot we can get. In most instances, it's the first shot we can get. They know that, they're just used to doing that. We'll probably have to learn some hard lessons along the way to figure that out."
MAUI: Bears Battle Orange One More Time
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