WATCH THIS TEAMThis is the most interesting Cal basketball team we've seen since the Ed Gray team without Ed Gray.
The year was 1997, the date was February 23rd, and Cal was 18-7 - a very good team, but not all that interesting. Ed Gray had just scored his 47th and 48th points of the game in Pullman, Washington and was running down court on a fast break. He went up for a dunk and then he went down; two days later he had a screw in his right foot courtesy of the good doctors at Alta Bates Medical Center.
Cal suddenly had to replace 25 points per game, and they turned to a football player (Tony Gonzalez), a hobbled veteran (Al Grigsby) and a streaky wing (Randy Duck). Each game after Gray's injury was an adventure, and you never knew where Cal's points would come from. But they did come - in a 79-77 win over Arizona, and then through two wins in the NCAA tournament (and a narrow loss to North Carolina).
We're not trying to compare this year's club to one of the best in school history, but the parallels are there. The '06-'07 team has lost the guts of its defense - the intimidating, shot-blocking DeVon hardin. Without Hardin, the Bears have only two healthy scholarship players taller than 6'7", and must play small and smart against a suddenly huge Pac-10.
And oddly enough, Cal has excelled against the tallest teams in the conference (UW, Stanford), while it was soundly handled by a highly disciplined team led by its back court (WSU). Before the Stanford game Ben Braun smiled when asked how he would cope with the 7'0" Lopez twins. "They've gotta guard us, too," he said. They couldn't - well at least the ones guarding Ayinde Ubaka couldn't. Against the giant Washington front line, the Bears somehow grabbed 15 offensive boards and limited the Huskies to only six in 45 minutes of play. Theo Robertson had his best game of the season; Ryan Anderson dominated the offensive glass; Cal shot 38% and beat the #24 squad in the nation by eight points. We love this team.
So the operative question is, can Cal make the postseason? Right now the Bears are 11-6 (3-2) with 13 left to play (+ at least one in the Pac 10 tourney). They have both homestands and road trips with the LA schools and the Oregon schools; they host the Arizonas, travel to Washington and host Stanford. Five wins in those 13 games would get the Bears to 16-14 before the Pac-10 tourney. The NIT requires only a .500 record, so 16 wins gets Cal on the brink of an invitation.
This week, the Bears make the Oregon trip - a split (winning Thursday at Corvallis) would live up to expectations, which means you can look for Cal to sweep. Whatever happens, you have got to watch this team. Watch them try to distribute fouls on defense to keep Ryan Anderson in the game. Watch Ayinde Ubaka get that look in his eye and try to take a game over with eight minutes to play. Watch Theo Robertson work hard. Watch Eric Vierneisel struggle (and occasionally succeed) carrying thirty-plus minutes per game. Watch Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher play like freshmen - very talented freshmen.
But above all, watch this team. We'll keep picking against them, you keep watching, and maybe we'll get to the post-season yet.