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Very few things get the Maples Pavilion crowd pumped like a good old-fashioned slugfest with the hated Golden Bears from Berkeley, California. Preseason prognosticators from all over the country figured that Stanford and Cal's men's basketball teams would wage a spirited battle for second best in the Pac-10, but few could have predicted the fortune (or misfortune) that has settled over these teams. Raise your hand if you thought Stanford would enter this game at 13-0 with road and neutral court victories over Arizona, Gonzaga, and Kansas. Now, to the few of you that are raising your hands, keep them raised if you would have predicted a 13-0 record knowing that Josh Childress would miss the first nine games. I thought so. While Stanford's early season success has been one of the biggest surprises of the early season, Cal has been making headlines as well, but not headlines that any big Bear-backer would want to read. Cal (6-7 overall, 2-2 Pac-10) has been a major disappointment all season and will need to finish in the upper reaches of the Pac-10 to make the NIT. Home losses to Air Force, Cal Poly, and Washington State, plus blowout losses at Colorado and Arizona have virtually eliminated the Bears from all tournament bracket projections. Sure, the Bears could run the table and make the tourney, but anyone who has watched this team knows that is unlikely and this Bears squad will be lucky to win 10 games in conference. However, as we all know so well, whenever Cal and Stanford play, regardless of the records, reputations, and recent performances of both squads, the game is sure to be a dogfight. Any person that looks past Cal and marks down the home game as an easy win is nothing short of foolish, and thus, the game will come down to match-ups, execution, and hustle. So, without further ado, a closer look at both teams...
Those Berkeley Bears
As mentioned earlier, the Bears have been a huge disappointment this season, but may have turned the corner in their last game with a huge win in Tempe. The tricky thing about using that game as a barometer is that Arizona State has struggled as much as Cal, and the victory could be the Sun Devils being worse than we thought just as easily as it could be Cal having turned the corner. Regardless, any road win in the Pac-10 is a good win; thus California will be coming into the game with some momentum.
The Bears' biggest problem this season has been scoring points. It figured that the Bears would take some time to come together because of their incredibly young roster, but no one expected veterans like seniors Amit Tamir and A.J. Diggs, and sophomore Richard Midgley to struggle as mightily as they have. Tamir, the unquestioned leader of the team, has dropped in every major statistical category and currently stands at a mere 10.8 ppg and 5.4 rebounds, on 41% shooting from the field. Midgley has been no more impressive with an uninspired 7.7 ppg to go along with his paltry 1.9 apg and frigid 37% field goal percentage. However, most disappointing has been Diggs who has managed to average only 1.6 ppg on 30% shooting in almost 17 minutes of action per game. With the veteran leaders of the team struggling, Cal has been forced to rely more on this tremendously talented freshman class. No one is questioning the talent of these fab frosh, but when you rely on freshmen to carry the offense you must be prepared to deal with the prolonged slumps and lapses that accompany young players. Freshmen Leon Powe, Marquise Kately, and Ayinde Ubaka have been the real bright spots for the Bears and point to a very interesting future in Berkeley. Powe is the team's leading scorer (15.7 ppg) and rebounder (9.5), and he commits a surprisingly low number of turnovers (1.9) for someone who touches the ball so frequently. Powe shoots an impressive 48% from the field, but is not devoid of faults. The fantastic forward is only a 69% foul shooter and averages only 0.8 assists per game. Still, Powe is the future of this team and a very dynamic scorer. Marquise Kately (10.2 ppg, 54% FG) and Ayinde Ubaka (7.0 ppg and 4.0 apg) provide energetic play as freshmen guards who have been earning more and more minutes as the season has progressed.
As a team, Cal shoots a mere 42.6% from the field, 63% from the foul line, and a miserable 26% from beyond the three-point line; they are scoring 64.0 points per game, to boot. These statistics are good (or bad) enough to rank them 8th, 9th, 10th, and 9th respectively in the Pac-10. Simply put, these numbers will not win a team many games, and after reviewing the offensive statistics, it is hard to believe that Cal is even 6-7. However, offense is only half the game, and the Bears will bring a very solid defense into Maples Pavilion Saturday evening. California allows a mere 62.0 points per game (3rd in Pac-10) and only 43% shooting from the field (4th in Pac-10). Cal has tried to force opponents to take tough shots by playing aggressive half court defense and hustling throughout the entire 35-second clock. Cal also tries to limit opponents to only one shot and has succeeded in outrebounding most of its opponents this season. On the season, Cal has the 3rd best rebounding differential in the Pac-10 (+ 4.7) and has a great rebounding duo in Powe and Tamir (hold your snickers).
Unfortunately for the Bears, Stanford also plays good defense (60.5 ppg on 39% shooting) and leads the league in scoring differential (+15.9 points). The Stanford defense, among the best in the country, contests all shots and cleans the glass to limit opponents to only one difficult shot. While Cal generally dominates the glass, players like Josh Childress, Justin Davis, and Rob Little are among the best rebounders in the conference. Let's just say that Amit Tamir has his work cut out for him. While everyone expected Arizona to run their offense against Stanford, the Wildcats were often harassed out of their sets and prevented from taking second shots. Thus, rebounding, which is generally a positive for Cal, could turn out to be a very big mismatch on Saturday evening. Stanford also has depth that can't be matched in the Pac-10. Players like Josh Childress, Matt Haryasz, Joe Kirchofer, and Dan Grunfeld come off the bench and provide a spark that often makes the difference in close ball games. Plus, Stanford enters this game with incredible momentum after posting a huge pair of victories over Arizona State and Arizona. If Stanford is able to harness the momentum from last weekend's incredible victories, they could springboard themselves to truly special things the rest of the conference season.
Josh Childress vs. Leon Powe
This match-up will have to wait a few minutes as it is expected that Childress will continue to come off the bench. However, once Childress enters, expect this match-up to be the focal point of an entertaining basketball game. Childress was the main reason that Stanford earned a sweep over Arizona and ASU, and he has the tools to dominate an immature Bears' frontline. Leon Powe is the future of the Pac-10 (should he choose to stick around) and is one of the best freshmen in the nation. Powe is leading the Bears as a freshman and will continue to mature throughout his stay at Berkeley. For Cal to have any chance in this game, Powe will have to be huge (I am thinking somewhere along the lines of 25 points and 10 rebounds). Childress has the athleticism and defensive ability to shut down a player like Powe, and if Childress is able to contribute anything near his averages on offense, this will be a long game for Cal. Stanford overmatches Cal at almost every other position and has incredible depth, so for Cal to keep the game close, winning this match-up is a necessity.
Keys to the game
- One and done for the Bears - Stanford has done a tremendous job on the boards this season, and if they win the rebounding battle will put themselves in tremendous position to win the game. Cal is one of the worst shooting teams in the conference; limiting them to just one shot will seriously hurt their ability to score points. Cal is also a solid rebounding team, so Stanford can neutralize one of their major strengths by coming out and rebounding well.
- Start quickly - Stanford has started sluggishly many times this season but they have always been able to use superior talent to outlast their opponents. Cal is not the type of team that Stanford wants to let hang around. Young teams can summon tremendous confidence when you give them the chance late in a game. It should be obvious that Cal has nowhere near enough talent to hang with the Card but will certainly be pumped up after their win over ASU, in addition to the energy inherent in a huge rivalry game. If anything, Stanford is in a no-win situation, which will be the case during much of this conference season. If they beat Cal, they were supposed to, and if they lose it is a huge upset. If Stanford can jump out to a big lead early, any pressure from playing Cal, and any motivation and momentum the Bears have, becomes irrelevant. However, the longer this stays a close game, the more the Bear cubs will believe they have a shot to win.
- Play with poise - Stanford has sometimes rushed shots and committed too many turnovers this season. The recipe for this sort of performance is certainly present on Saturday. Stanford will be pumped up to be playing at home against Cal, will be flying high after their big victory over Arizona, and will be expected to win. Such high-flying energy and excitement can lead to lots of turnovers, rushed shots, and spotty defense. In a game like this, everyone wants to make the big play and everyone is trying to impress the home crowd. The onus will be on Chris Hernandez to come out early, get his team into a rhythm, and work Stanford through its half court sets.
- Get the ball inside - This should be a no-brainer. Stanford has the most intimidating front court in the Pac-10 and should have a clear-cut advantage inside. If Stanford pounds the ball into the paint it will open up the perimeter for Matt Lottich, Hernandez, and Grunfeld and allow Stanford to score easily.
Stanford is clearly the superior team and is playing on its home court in front of what should be a raucous crowd. Stanford has more skill in the starting lineup than Cal, is the more experienced and battle-tested team, rebounds better, plays better defense, shoots better, and has decidedly superior depth. On paper this game is a huge rout. However, Cal has not yet played to their potential this year. They are coming off a road victory and are playing their most hated rival - it may be the necessary wake-up call for this underperforming squad. I fully expect the Bears to come out with a lot of energy and keep the game close early. However, even with the rivalry factor, Cal has too much to overcome unless they get a perfect game and Stanford has an off day. We have seen that happen a few times this year as teams have given Stanford all they can handle, but I really don't see this being a letdown type of game. The Bears will probably stay close early but don't be surprised to see Stanford pull away in the second half.
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