However, sparks can come in a variety of ways. After the Arizona trip, the Bears coaching staff committed to adding a missing piece to their team, namely getting more court time from everyone on the Cal roster.
"We are starting to attack the depth thing. We played our guys (starters) a lot of minutes and we paid the price this past weekend. We were fatigued down the stretch in both games. There is going to come a time where we will have to give some guys some more minutes. Rod Benson is going to have to step in. Amit Tamir plays too many minutes. Conor Famulener plays so hard that he gets fatigued. The players will never tell you that they are tired ... they want to play. I don't ask anymore. It's up to me as a coach to make that decision and give some of the guys a break. One thing that came out of the Arizona trip is that we have to look at some people depth-wise. Even though some of them are young guys, they've helped us in some big games. Against Stanford and Oregon, those guys played early and spelled our starters. We're going to have to do that more often." - Coach Ben Braun.
That's a powerful quote. It describes a key component of Cal's strategy as we enter the stretch run of the Pac-10 schedule.
Another critical factor will be the play of Gabriel Hughes, the starting center for the Bears in the majority of games this year. Hughes has always been a very active young player, but he is now playing far beyond any level that he has played in the past. As he grew up in his brother's shadow (former Cal Bear Solomon Hughes), 'Gabe' has been searching not only for his own identity on the court - but his own game. Hughes has absolutely attacked the rim the past 4 games, and playing ferocious defense on the interior. His numbers haven't been eye-opening or double digits yet, but you can see the growth.
More than one Pac-10 coach has noticed the difference in his recent play, and Gabe now has a chance to catapult the Bears into a serious contender for the Pac-10 title if he makes each night consistent. I wrote at the beginning of the season that if Hughes ever got to averaging 8 ppg and 8 rpg, the Bears could win the Pac-10. For most of this season, Hughes has averaged 2 points and 2 boards a game. Starting with the UCLA game however, Hughes has averaged 6.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, and 1.8 bpg. Probably some of the credit for this has to go to Amit Tamir, who constantly speaks to Hughes out on the hardwood. Amit is an adept high post player, and you can see that they work on post plays during game situations. The only downside to Hughes recent play are his fouls, but that can be a positive if it comes with a player who is really making things happen.
The final spark has come from the team's style of play. I think Coach Braun used a key word when he said 'attack' in his above quote, and that was put display in Corvallis against a confident Oregon State team. The Bears took it right at their opponent, and that wasn't an easy chore. The Beavers had won 4 straight in conference and desperately wanted to end Cal's long winning streak against them - which is now 10.
All those elements are important to keep in mind as the Bears head into Eugene to face the Oregon Ducks today (Saturday). It sure looks like Cal has "caught a second wind", and we will see a beauty of a game at Mac Court against the Ducks.
Here is a quick look at the 2002-03 Oregon team;
Projected Starting Lineup: (Returning starters in Bold) 2002-03 Statistics
- PG- Luke Ridnour 6'2 175 Jr (19.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 6.3 apg, 1.8 spg, 35% 3-Ptr's)
- SG- James Davis 5'10 175 Jr (10.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 2.2 apg, 44% 3-Ptr's)
- SF- Luke Jackson 6'7 215 Jr - (16.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.9 apg, 2.0 spg, 41% 3-Ptr's)
- PF- Robert Johnson 6'8 250 Sr (8.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.3 apg)
- C- Matt Short 7'0 235 Fr - (2.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
- Andre Joseph 6'3 185 Jr - (9.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.0 apg 35% 3-Ptr's)
- Brandon Lincoln 6'4 200 Fr - (3.5 ppg, 0.8 rpg, 0.7 apg, 50% 3-Ptr's)
- Brian Helquist 6'9 260 Sr (3.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
- Ian Crosswhite 6'11 250 Fr - (10.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.1 apg, 49% 3-Ptr's)
- Jay Anderson 6'9 220 Jr - (2.7 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
The 2003 version of the Oregon Ducks have been pretty hard to figure out. In fact, the Ducks have been that way 3 straight years. No matter what every writer in the country predicts the Ducks will do next year, I'm going to say just the opposite. Last year, most pundits said they'd finish between 7th and 10th in the Pac-10. Oregon then went on to their first ever Pac-10 crown and a sensational Elite Eight run. This year, almost every major College Basketball poll had them nationally in the Top 10. The Ducks are currently 16-5 (6-4 in the Pac-10) and just fell out of the top 25. I'm done with trying to logically place them.
The inconsistency hasn't covered the entire season, as Oregon did show early that they were back in a big way after a win against top 10 Kansas, and top 25 Minnesota. The win over Kansas avenged their loss in the Elite Eight last year to the Jayhawks. Then, unexpectedly, the Ducks were blown out at Cincinnati, and have played just 2 games over .500 in a conference that they won outright a year ago with 14 total wins. Most people have attributed Oregon's inconsistency in Pac-10 play to rebounding, defense, and the loss of offensive mastermind Greg Graham. Oregon fans knew the loss of Chris Christoffersen was going to have some effect, though most thought that with the rotation of returning PF's Johnson, Anderson, and Helquist that rebounding wouldn't be an issue. With the help of Luke Jackson, and both red-shirt freshmen Ian Crosswhite and Matt Short, there seemed to be no reason for a rebounding shortage. That hope has been dashed.
The same applies on the defense side of the ball, as Oregon has been exposed defensively by teams who rotate the ball well. Some Oregon fans have noted the lack of energy in certain games this year from the team in general, though there have been some exceptional performances too. The Ducks are 6-1 in their past seven games.
The missing piece that may have hurt them more than anything else is the loss of Greg Graham, now in his first season at Boise State. Graham spent the past 5 seasons in Eugene, and using his offensive scheme turned the Pac-10 on its head last year. Featuring a high tempo, no-foul motto, the Ducks simply ran past teams. They played deeper into the tournament than any Pac-10 team last year as well.
Oregon truly relies on the confidence and tempo setting of Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson, two pre-season All-American nominees who have a knack for making special plays. Ridnour can stop and hit the long jumper, dish, drive, or score creatively as well. He's also one of the smartest point guards in recent Pac-10 memory. Jackson is simply clutch, and I love every aspect of his game. He has struggled in certain games this year, and throughout his career the Bears have really given him fits. Jackson will be a key player to watch in this contest. Helping out offensively in the backcourt are junior's James Davis and Andre Joseph. Joseph is by far the better-sized player, and seems to give the Ducks another much needed rebounding threat. Davis plays within the system better than Joseph, who really is just in his first year. For the most part, Ernie Kent has played whoever has the hot hand. Freshman Brandon Lincoln plays just under 10 minutes per game, and played his biggest game in the win over Stanford. Lincoln played due to foul trouble on Ridnour.
In the front court, both native Californians Matt Short and Robert Johnson are the starting duo. Johnson was really a rock last year for Ernie Kent, consistently chipping in each game. It's been a bit more of a struggle for Johnson this year though, and Short has taken over since everyone else has failed. Short, from Yreka, has a nice mid-range game and doesn't try to do anything spectacular. Ian Crosswhite is averaging more points per game than Short and Johnson combined, and since he's shooting nearly 50% from the arc, he's a threat on the court. Maturity seems to be an issue for him though, as he has spent a number of games playing behind other frontcourt players despite being the team's third leading scorer. Jay Anderson and Brian Helquist played very well during the non-conference schedule, but haven't been a factor since.
California 2002-03 Team
Projected Starting Lineup: (Returning Starters in Bold) 2002-03 Statistics
- PG- Richard Midgley, 6'1 200 Fr (9.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.9 apg, 45% 3-ptrs)
- SG- Brian Wethers, 6'5 215 Sr (14.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 30% 3-Ptr's)
- SF- Joe Shipp, 6'5 220 Sr (21.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 43% 3-ptrs)
- F- Amit Tamir, 6'11 260 So (17.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.0 apg, 47% 3-ptrs)
- C- Gabriel Hughes, 6'11 230 Jr (2.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 0.9 bpg)
- A.J. Diggs, 5'9 165 Jr (3.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.4 apg, 2.1 spg)
- David Paris, 6'9 260 Fr (1.8 ppg, 1.9 rpg)
- Erik Bond, 6'7 205 Fr (2.3 ppg, 1.4 rpg)
- Conor Famulener, 6'6 230 Jr (2.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.2 apg)
- Donte Smith, 6'2 190 Sr (2.2 ppg, 0.5 rpg, 0.8 apg)
- Rodrique Benson, 6'10 195 Fr (Limited Minutes)
- Martin Smith, 5'11 155 Fr (Limited Minutes)
- Tashaan Forehan-Kelly, 6'3 170 So (Limited Minutes)
- Jordi Vilardell, 6'10 190 Fr (Limited Minutes)
"Amit's awareness level is higher. He is certainly aware of what he is going to face, and now it's just a matter of going out and executing. He is a gifted player and whenever you give him a challenge, he usually responds. This is another level now, another stage for him. He can pretty much count on double teams for the rest of the year, or people running at him out on the perimeter." - Ben Braun
Since we are talking Oregon and Cal on the hardwood, one player surfaces immediately - Amit Tamir. The sophomore from Jerusalem has absolutely dominated the stat line in his three career games against the Ducks, averaging an incredible 27.7 points per game on 71% 3-point shooting. Tamir has also shot 87% from the charity stripe. He could be labeled 'Cal's Official Duck Hunter', if you will. With Gabe Hughes playing stronger, the Bears should clearly be able to score with their big guys. Conor, David, and Rod Benson will look to outplay the Ducks bench, as Ernie Kent rotates his big men often.
In the backcourt, A.J Diggs and Richard Midgley will try to counter punch with Ridnour as best they can. Brian Wethers is about as tough a match-up as the Ducks will see all year, and the inexperienced Joseph is truly the only one who has a chance at guarding him. And whether you believe in statistics or not, Joe Shipp is scoring and rebounding better than Jackson. Beyond Ridnour's obvious talent, the Bears have the advantage at most positions.
For the most part, Cal's defensive scheme has given the Ducks numerous problems. Even Coach Braun noted that at the conclusion of the first game in Berkeley this year, an 88-72 final that wasn't as close as the score indicates. The constant defensive changes take away the speed effect that Oregon relies on, allowing Ducks only small runs instead of their trademark streaks. For the Ducks to beat Cal, they have to consistently score at all parts of the game. A big lead early would really help them.
Oregon is still one of the top offensive teams in the country (#5 in points per game), but the Bears shoot the same percentage from the floor. Oregon and Cal are the two best 3-point shooting teams in the Pac-10 as well, so there is no vast firepower difference. Still, even though Cal has more confidence in their game plan then Oregon, this will probably be a barnburner, and the great fans at Mac Court will be an important equalizer. It was a 4-point game a year ago, and will probably be the same thing this year.
I believe the Bears will win it 88-84. As far as Player of the Game, every time Oregon and Cal have recently faced each other, I have picked someone other than Tamir because I keep expecting Ernie Kent to make switch-outs on him. But Ernie is stubborn, and hasn't done it yet, so I'll give Tamir the nod.
I am 17-2 on predictions this year.
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