Beyond #4 ranked Arizona (7-1) and #9 ranked Oregon (9-1), the Pac-10 is searching for teams with strong resumes. In a conference that annually sends 4-5 teams to the NCAA Tournament (a record 6 last year), 2003 might just be an exception. The contenders for a 3rd and possible 4th at large bid involve Cal, Stanford, Oregon State, and Arizona State. Obviously, every team has a shot with the conference's automatic bid being given out at the Pac-10 Tournament. And at this time, winning the Pac-10 Tournament is exactly what teams like UCLA, USC, Washington, and Washington State are faced with. They are virtually eliminated with poor non-conference records.
Most pundits would place Stanford slightly over Cal right now for the 3rd spot, and that's due to the Cardinal' impressive start in the Pre-Season NIT. With wins over Boston University, #11 ranked Xavier, #7 ranked Florida, and a loss to unranked UNC in the NIT finale…Stanford certainly spun off some impressive games over a two-week stretch. However, that momentum came crashing to a halt with two home losses to Montana and Richmond, both occurring in Stanford's Annual Invitational Tournament at Maples Pavilion. Mike Montgomery's team has rebounded recently though, posting 4 straight wins (2 Home Games, 1 Road Game, and 1 Neutral Court Game) including Gonzaga at the Pete Newell Classic. In comparison, Cal has no marquee wins over Top 25 Teams, but they also have not lost to anyone from the Big Sky Conference either. The Bears have basically beat the teams they should have beat, and lost to two teams that were more prepared in scheduling. And you have to give credit to those teams, as Georgia should win the SEC again this year, and Kansas is attempting to do the unthinkable when they try to go undefeated in the Big 12 two consecutive years. I think the advantage between Cal and Stanford has to go to the Cardinal though as of right now, as they currently sit 9-3 with two Top 25 Wins and a solid RPI. Still, College Basketball is about change…and the Pac-10 is sure to change in the next few weeks.
With that thinking, this game is a must win for the Bears to enjoy any thoughts at the NCAA Tournament. It could be argued that the Bears could always win in March at Maples, but the bottom line is that a win instantly gives Cal credit in the Pac-10 Standings…and you never count on victories on the road in this conference. Additionally, it is a home game for the Bears. In a conference where you essentially have to win your home games, it's all the more pivotal. It also comes against a team that you are currently looking up at in the race for the Final 64, and since its your long standing rival…this contest becomes all the more important. As I always like to say, "it is the opportunity that everyone wants".
Mike Montgomery has done a superb job this year, after perhaps not getting the results he would have liked with last year's squad. Josh Childress and Casey Jacobsen did not mesh well a year ago, and it just seemed as if the entire team had 3 different gears…with different players tugging on each of them. Its very tough to win basketball games when you haven't decided whether you are a half-court team, an inside-power team, or a fast-break style team. In 2002, Coach Montgomery has been able to focus his team on one speed, despite one significant injury and one significant NFL decision. Chris Hernandez broke his left foot for the 2nd time this season in the Montana-loss, and I believe will take a medical-redshirt. Teyo Johnson, the starting WR and starting PF for the Cardinal most of last year, decided on an early NFL career too…which means that he'll skip basketball and focus on the NFL combines. Every team usually has its share of injuries, but it's the defections that surprise you. In the past two seasons alone, Stanford has seen 4 of its basketball players declare early for the NBA, and I believe all of them were 1st Round Picks.
Here is a quick look at the 2002-03 Stanford team;
Projected Starting Lineup: (Returning starters in Bold) 2002-03 Statistics
PG- Julius Barnes 6'1 185 Sr (14.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.7 apg, 37% 3-Ptr's)
SG- Matt Lottich 6'4 205 Jr (9.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.7 apg, 37% 3-Ptr's)
SF- Josh Childress 6'8 200 So - (14.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, 40% 3-Ptr's)
PF- Justin Davis 6'9 245 Jr (11.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.7 apg)
C- Rob Little 6'10 275 So (8.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg)
Nick Robinson 6'6, 200 So - (3.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.0 apg)
Dan Grunfeld 6'6 210 Fr - (5.2 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.0 apg)
Jason Haas 6'2 180 Fr - (1.2 ppg, 0.6 rpg, 0.8 apg)
Joe Kirchofer 6'9 245 Jr - (2.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg)
Matt Haryasz 6'10 215 Fr - (1.8 ppg, 1.9 rpg)
The lone senior on this squad and perhaps the Pac-10's best point/shooting guard is Julius Barnes, the sparkplug to Stanford's past teams. Barnes is originally from the HS league that I played in as a youth, so I followed his prep career quite a bit in Los Angeles. A very underrated overall athlete, Barnes is still learning how to play the point, and has always had trouble with smaller quick point guards due to his handle. He gets the job done though, and since Julius is an excellent athlete he's always a great guy to have on the court. Starting alongside Barnes is junior Matt Lottich, an aggressive shooter and defender. Lottich will play the majority of minutes, but we'll see Dan Grunfeld there as well (the son of Bucks GM Ernie Grunfeld). Freshman Jason Haas will get his 1st look at Haas Pavilion.
In the frontcourt, Josh Childress has certainly shown the maturity and drive I think some fans around Palo Alto were hoping for last year. He's been assertive and tough, and his rebounding and jumping skills have been especially impressive. Childress is the team's most effective outside scorer, and since he is a slasher…he is one of the tougher match-up's in the Pac-10. Justin Davis is averaging nearly a double-double per game, and the Berkeley native might have some revenge on his mind since last year he played over 40 minutes against the Bears combined in the back-to-back contests and scored just 4 points. Davis is athletic and strong, though he is prone to some up & down games. Rob Little mans the center spot, and the sophomore is still learning the position. Little is able to maneuver his way around the lane, and can knock down a few close range jumpers. Backing up the three starters are Joe Kirchofer, Nick Robinson, and Matt Haryasz. Robinson has played quite well in his limited minutes, and I have been impressed with Haryasz. The freshman has a nice game, though he's still a bit thin.
California 2002-03 Team
Projected Starting Lineup: (Returning Starters in Bold) 2002-03 Statistics
PG- A.J. Diggs, 5'9 165 Jr. (5.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.4 apg, 2.8 spg)
SG- Brian Wethers, 6'5 215 Sr. (14.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.2 apg, 40% 3-Ptr's)
SF- Joe Shipp, 6'5 220 Sr. (19.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, 42% 3-ptrs)
F- Amit Tamir, 6'11 260 So. (17.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 46% 3-ptrs)
C- Gabriel Hughes, 6'11 230 Jr. (2.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg)
Richard Midgley, 6'1 200 Fr. (9.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.7 apg, 48% 3-ptrs)
Erik Bond, 6'7 205 Fr. (2.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.9 apg)
Conor Famulener, 6'6 230 Jr. (3.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.1 apg)
David Paris, 6'9 260 Fr. (1.1 ppg, 1.4 rpg)
Rodrique Benson, 6'10 195 Fr. (Limited Minutes)
Martin Smith (Limited Minutes)
Tashaan Forehan-Kelly, 6'3 170 So. (Limited Minutes)
Jordi Vilardell, 6'10 190 Fr. (Limited Minutes)
Donte Smith, 6'2 190 Sr. (Injured - Out till January)
For Cal, an adequate 7-2 Non-Conference record is what they enter Pac-10 Play with. I know some Cal fans are significantly down about the record and the play, but I guarantee you that UCLA, USC, Washington, and WaZzu would trade spots with the Bears any day. With an 11-7 Pac-10 record and one win in the Pac-10 Tournament, the Bears WILL lock up a spot for their 3rd straight NCAA Tournament appearance. That's not the easiest task in the world, but I think it can be done…and that's why I picked Cal to get a bid this year. The Bears are coming off a hard fought 77-70 OT Win against San Francisco, and as I said in my preview, Shamell Stallworth was the key. "Stallworth dictated whether or not the Dons would be competitive or not", and his game high 20 points for USF had them in contention all night long. Shamell did not score against Sacramento State earlier this year, and of course…lights up BYU for 37 points. That's streaky.
I believe we will likely see a physical game between Cal and Stanford on Saturday night. Like last year, there were a couple of shoves off the ball, and there is going to be a significant amount of tension between rivals. I think Cal has had their toughness level checked throughout the past two games, as well by the coaching staff after the USF game. Coach Braun's ire was certainly noticeable after the game, and it was directed at the horrendous start and the lack of energy by the team. I know I didn't see that kind of start by the Bears, but I'm sure its straightened out now. Stanford is likely to see an A-game by the Bears.
When you look at match-up's, the Joe Shipp-Josh Childress is by far the most intriguing. In a man-to-man defensive situation, I believe Cal will let Amit Tamir play the perimeter forcing Justin Davis to guard him…which is probably fine with Mike Montgomery, though he'd prefer to keep Justin in the paint. Cal will counter that by moving Shipp to the block and taking the thinner Childress near the backboard. Richard Midgley is sure to factor into this game as well since he has emerged as a true scoring threat. I figure he'll score between 12-15 pts against Stanford, and I hope he gets a ton of shots. Midgley can flat out shoot the ball. Overall, the Bears should attack the Cardinal by getting inside points from Richard on drives, and by Shipp on the block. Stanford might even try to sag on Diggs the way UCSB did, as Mike Montgomery loves to challenge individual players. Cal will likely use Brian Wethers athleticism on Lottich too. Don't be surprised if its Tamir or Shipp who leads the Bears in scoring (one of them has led Cal in scoring every other game this year).
On the other end of the court, Stanford will try to get inside at first. I'd look for Justin Davis or Rob Little to score the first few baskets for Stanford. If they are able to get an inside game going, Lottich and Barnes will likely fire up a number of shots. I believe Cal will play excellent as far as on the ball pressure, and I believe their energy level will be solid. The big key in stopping the Cardinal though is always going to be how you defend the three point shot. They shoot the ball between 20-25 times from outside the arc per game, and if the Cardinal can pull a team away from the hoop…it gives them the inside room to maneuver. Julius Barnes is much more effective when his outside shot is falling. Last year, I believe Julius scored 7 pts at Haas Pavilion, and then 27 pts at Maples. In my opinion, that was the difference between Cal losing by 20 pts, or winning by 14 pts.
My take on this game is that the Bears will get the upper hand somewhere before half-time, and just like last year when A.J stole the ball for a lay-up…come out a few points ahead. I have a feeling that Stanford will be a bit tight too, as the loss from last year at Haas Pavilion can't be a wonderful memory. Also, I have long stated that I don't believe the Cardinal are prepared to play in this type of an environment yet, and its one of the main reasons why I wonder how they'll start the year off in the Pac-10. I have talked with a few fans from around the Cardinal program, and even they dislike the fact that Stanford has played one true road game in their first 12 overall games (at UNLV - where they almost broke down in the 2nd half). I simply do not like their preparation level for this environment. It's never a surprise to me when young teams avoid quality road games early in the season, and then struggle when they start happening during Conference play. Just look at the Bears a year ago, when they were walloped by twenty at both South Florida & Stanford, then dropped a close one to Oregon…then finally broke through with a big win at Oregon State. That's what happens when you play 8 of your first 9 games at home with a young team. Coaches might be trying to get a young team confidence, but it ends up coming back to haunt you on the road.
I think this is by far a more important game for Cal than it is for the Cardinal. Stanford can split games on the road, and win at home…and qualify for the NCAA Tournament without any problems. I think that gives Cal a considerable edge on Saturday night, as they should be up for this game in a big way. You have to like the incentive for the Bears, and the confidence they exude at Haas Pavilion. I'll predict the final score of 75-65 Cal, and the MVP going to Brian Wethers. I think the streak of Amit & Joe leading the Bears in scoring has to end at some point. I am currently 8-1 on the year in Predictions.
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