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Syracuse vs. Cal: Orange Questions, Golden Answers

We asked the folks over at California Golden Blogs to fill us in on the Cal basketball team, what to expect out of them on Saturday and whether or not we need to be very worried.

Ezra Shaw

The Syracuse Orange will attempt to get back to the Sweet Sixteen for the fourth time in five years when they take on the California Golden Bears in the "third" round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament in San Jose, CA on Saturday night.

Before we get there, we asked the folks over at California Golden Blogs to fill us in on the Cal basketball team, what to expect out of them on Saturday and whether or not we need to be very worried. Then again, we're Syracuse fans. When aren't we worried?

Cal has a 21-11 overall record but tell us a little bit about the season behind the record. Is a 12-seed in the NCAA Tournament a success? Disappointment?

LEastCoastBears: The Cal journey to the 21-11 record is perhaps more interesting than the destination. While the Bears more or less met the expectation of being a conference title contender and a NCAA team, struggle during the end of the non-conference season and the beginning of the Pac-12 season had Cal fans looking at a NIT or possibly CBI appearance. Just when the season looked to be a loss with the toughest part of the conference season coming up, the Bears went on a sensation run late January to early March, winning 8 out of 9, including wins over conference leaders Arizona (on the road), Oregon (twice), and UCLA (blow out win). The roundabout way to get here is what made this season (so far) remarkable. An additional win would make this season very special, as the Bears have not been the Sweet Sixteen in 16 years.

NorCalNick: A success, but not a wild success. Cal fans expected to contend for the Pac-12 title and make the NCAA tournament, and ultimately that's what the Bears did this year. Expectations were hardly sky-high after losing two stalwart seniors including the Pac-12 player of the year, but there was obvious returning talent too (like the current Pac-12 player of the year!)

I think fans were hoping for a higher seed, but Cal's early season struggles prevented that. In the end, I think we're all pretty happy with a 12 seed in San Jose rather than a 7 or 8 seed anywhere else.

Fans were pretty disappointed that the Bears were unable to clinch a Pac-12 title when all they needed to do was beat their NIT bound arch-rivals. But an NCAA tournament win over UNLV feels pretty darn good too.

LeonPowe: First of all, F the atoms guy. Dual loyalties? HE WILL BE BANNED IF SYRACUSE WINS. It has been an odd season for our Bears - we started out well enough, but went into a tailspin in late December through mid January - losing to Harvard, Creighton, UNLV, UCLA in a row, not making a single three pointer in that stretch. But then late January hit and we won 7 in a row and were looking like Pac-12 champs - at least a very strong contender. However, we collapsed in our last two games, getting blown out vs. Stanfurd and then losing to Pac-12 doormat Utah in the tournament - most fans didn't know how to react to this team. I think we're slightly underseeded - but the way we finished the year, it was understandable to be dropped.

atomsareenough: Hey guys! I'm a rare breed, the Cal/Syracuse alum. I went to Cal undergrad and Syracuse for grad school, so this is going to be a bit of a strange game for me. I was glad to see the Orange dismantle Montana, and I'll happily root for Syracuse against anyone in the country, except for Cal... I'm a Californian born and raised, and Cal is my alma mater, so I've gotta stick with my Golden Bears, even against the Orange. Though, if Syracuse wins, I guess it won't be as bad for me, because a Syracuse win is a silver lining, even to a Cal loss. But really I'm rooting for both teams to play well and the Bears to win, and if they lose, I want Syracuse to go all the way. I'm trying to approach it as a win-win.

Anyway, with regard to seeding, getting a 12 is a little bit of a disappointment, to be honest. We went into the season with high hopes, and we were only one game from winning the Pac-12 in the regular season. I felt like if we had won the Pac-12 tourney, we were looking at a 6 or 7 seed. As it was, ending with two bad losses, it wasn't surprising to be in the 10-12 range, and we're glad we got in at all, but considering what could have been, it's a little disappointing. On the other hand, at least we didn't get put into the 8-9 game with a #1 seed lurking in the next round. Though I guess in retrospect, getting put in the 8-9 game in the West region might not have been so bad. Anyway, if we beat Syracuse in the round of 32, I think that's an unqualified successful tournament for Cal. If we lose to Syracuse, then I guess we pretty much met expectations and no more.

The Bears held on for dear life to beat UNLV. Were you guys expecting that win?

LEastCoastBears: Given how the Bears almost beat UNLV earlier this year, I think most Cal fans believe we have a solid chance of winning this game, particularly if the crowd could be a factor. Bears did catch a bit of a break that when UNLV stop making shots to beat the Bears' zone, the Runnin' Rebels self-destructed. Given how being a Cal fan is pretty much synonymous with heartbreak in the most painful way, I don't think anyone "expected" the win until the game is finally over and the Bears are still ahead.

NorCalNick: I think everybody was expecting a nail-biter. The teams had played earlier in the year and it was a back-and-forth thriller that ended on a buzzer-beater, and there wasn't any particular reason to think it would be different this time.

That said, a win was hardly a surprise. Cal has one win over every single other Pac-12 team in the tournament. When they show up ready to play, they can stay with most anybody.

atomsareenough: Yes, actually. We played UNLV last year and earlier this year, and they beat us both times, so we knew it would be a tough game, but we're a lot better than the team we were in December when they beat us on a buzzer beating putback off an airball, so we knew we had a good chance, and that seeding belied the evenness of the matchup. Plus, we owed them one.

LeonPowe: I was confident we could hang in there and make it a close game against UNLV. Bennett is likely the best player we've seen this year and while he was very good against us, our interior defenders have greatly improved since then. Expecting a win? No, but I wasn't surprised by winning either.

The easiest way to beat Syracuse is to shoot the lights out from three. Who's the most likely player to put the fear of God into us?

LEastCoastBears: For a perimeter team, Cal is actually quite terrible from the 3's. Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, is a great shooter and has the ability to get hot and carry the team. Typically though, Crabbe would pass off a defended 3 to try to get his teammates better shots. Combo guard Justin Cobbs is the other consistent 3 point threat. The X-factor may be transfer and recently returned (from season long injuries) Ricky Kreklow. Kreklow is known to be a very good shooter, although he may be rusty. His two attempts from the 3 point line in the UNLV game were way off.

NorCalNick: Crabbe, Crabbe, Crabbe. Cal isn't really a good 3 point shooting team in that there are only two guys on the team who should ever really be shooting them. Cobbs is solid, but not to the extent that Crabbe is.

Now, you might notice that Crabbe hasn't shot a ton of 3s this year, and he doesn't have an amazing percentage or anything. That's because every single other team (especially in conference play) knows that he's Cal's go-to guy, especially from outside. Everybody schemes to stop him, and I expect Syracuse to do the same.

atomsareenough: Reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe, mainly. Justin Cobbs can also hurt you from deep. It's rumored that Ricky Kreklow is a good shooter as well, but he hasn't played enough this year for us to know, thanks to a foot injury that kept him out most of the year. You can pretty much leave the rest of the team open from the perimeter all day, though. Smith, Solomon, and Wallace will shoot when they're wide open, but they're just not very high percentage shooters from behind the arc.


Syracuse's front court has been bullied around at times. Any chance Cal can do some of that bullying?

atomsareenough: A small chance. Thurman can be physical, and he knows how to finish around the rim. Solomon also is a good athlete and has his moments. David Kravish is more of a finesse player, but he's skilled and fundamentally sound. None of those guys are consistent, but they have their moments.

LEastCoastBears: The two best Cal front court guys: Richard Solomon and David Kravish are not the bullying type. They both have decent mid-range game offensively as well as ability to use their length to block shots defensively. The only guy who may bully the Syracuse frontline might be senior Robert Thurman. His 6 dunks, set up by great Cal penetrations, were instrumental in the victory over UNLV.

NorCalNick: Offensively? No. Cal's interior offense is mostly built on guys scoring off dishes from penetrating guards. But defensively, that's entirely different. Richard Solomon and David Kravish have, somewhat late in the season, developed into a surprisingly excellent defensive combo inside. Kravish in particular had the defensive game of his life against UNLV, holding likely lottery pick Anthony Bennett to just 4 field goals. In total, UNLV only managed 18 points in the paint.

Will they be able to lock down the paint as successfully against Syracuse? I have no clue. But I'd consider it as a possibility.

LeonPowe: We're not the most physical front court - except for maybe walk-on turned dunk machine Robert Thurman (THE THURMINATOR - who was 6 for 6 from the field against UNLV. All dunks.) but our bigs are either athletic and long (Richard Solomon) or savvy and skilled (David Kravish) - we've been able to be tough and smart and have turned it on shot blocking wise over the last third of the season, but we're not really big bodied guys who can shove people around.*

*Except Coach Mike Montgomery. he can shove people around.

How the heck did 12-seed Cal end up with a home-court advantage against 4-seed Syracuse?

LEastCoastBears: For the number of times that Cal has to play at opponent's backyard in the NCAA history (Oklahoma in Oklahoma City and Pitt in Pittsburgh from just the last 10 year or so), this is perhaps just the universe's way of evening things out.

NorCalNick: It's a bizarre situation when Cal and Oregon were both 'disrespected' with better draws than they would have gotten if they had been respected. Cal and Oregon are both probably closer to 9/10 seeds in quality than 12s.

LeonPowe: We've been screwed so many times having to play "neutral" site games in a nearby city of a different team that my sympathy is at zero.

atomsareenough: It happens. As a 6-seed in the 2002 tourney, we had to face 11-seed UPenn in Pittsburgh. Our reward for winning that game was facing 3-seed Pitt, also in Pittsburgh, though at least they had the higher seed going into that one. Anyway, we've been dicked over by the NCAA and the sporting gods enough that I'm not going to apologize for a rare bit of good fortune. 'Cuse is the better basketball team and should win even if it were in Haas Pavilion, or on the moon. Deal with it.

6. Mike Montgomery...he's doing very well, no?

LEastCoastBears: Monty is a really good coach. While this year's team doesn't have the depth nor the collective basketball IQ of better Mike Montgomery squads in the past (particularly at that Jr University across the Bay), you can trust Monty to come up with a good play out of timeout to put the team in the best situation to win.

NorCalNick: I would guess that the only time basketball fans east of Colorado thought about Monty since he left Stanford was after the infamously overblown shove heard round the world. But Monty is probably the best coach I've ever closely followed in terms of basic game planning and player skill development. I just wish he had the type of talent that Syracuse tends to have year to year.

LeonPowe: Great coach, some recruiting misses, but improving. He was a great hire and you know, 3 Pac-10/12 Players of the Year, a Pac-10 championship, and 3 tournament appearances not a whole lot to complain about. Would like to capture more local high end talent and maybe a deeper run in the tourney would be nice, but I'm very satisfied with what we've had so far.

atomsareenough: Yes, he is. We're all mostly pretty big fans of Monty (as he's affectionately known around these parts). We really like his hard-nosed but cerebral brand of basketball at Cal. He's a great in-game coach as well, and his adjustments and set plays are as good as anyone's. The big knock on him was that he couldn't really recruit, but our incoming recruiting class is looking pretty good this year as well. So, the future seems pretty bright. The only question is, how much longer is he going to coach? For reference, he's only 2 years younger than Boeheim, and he had a cancer scare a year and a half ago. But yeah, as long as he's still got the desire, we're happy to have him. He fits our school well enough that we're willing to overlook the whole Stanford thing.

Cal will beat Syracuse if...

LEastCoastBears: Cal will beat Syracuse if Syracuse gets distracted by the NCAA probe (again? what's up with that?) or continue to lament about how they have to play in Cal's backyard. Since end of January (when Cal turned the season around), Syracuse has been just barely better than a 0.500 team. So maybe Syracuse is due for a loss after blowing out Montana.

NorCalNick: Crabbe goes off for 25, Richard Solomon and David Kravish have the games of their life on the defensive glass,

atomsareenough: Well, if we move the ball around and shoot well, obviously. Also, we're going to have to be disciplined on defense and be able to help and rotate to stop the Orange from getting penetration and clean looks. Strangely enough, although Montgomery's teams have been known for their tough man-to-man defense (sure, not as much as Boeheim is known for the 2-3 zone, but in that same kind of vein), it's been the zone defense which has been oddly effective for Cal this year in tough spots. Can 'Cuse handle getting a taste of their own medicine?

LeonPowe: Crabbe goes off and carries us OR all 6.5 rotation players play hard smart and tough. We've been blown out before and if we get carried away and start playing one on one, we're not in good shape. When we play smart and team ball we can do very well.

Game Prediction?

LEastCoastBears: Being a current DC area dweller, I would love for nothing more than the Bears to come here next week. Cal also shares a bar with Syracuse in DC, so it is going to be an interesting environment on Saturday. I predict an insane game from Allen Crabbe (making 8 or so 3's) to carry the Bears to Sweet Sixteen.

NorCalNick: Syracuse 63, Cal 59. At times, an ugly defensive slugfest. Cal has trouble scoring over Syracuse's length, but Cal's generally solid defense keeps it respectable.

LeonPowe: I'm really bad at this.

atomsareenough: We'll keep it close in the first half but eventually the Orange will overpower us. Last time we played a few years ago, it was in MSG, and this time we'll have more of a home court advantage, which will help... but I think ultimately Syracuse is too long and talented for the Bears to contain for 40 minutes.