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February 16, 2011

Bears host USC on Thursday, UCLA on Sunday

BERKELEY -- Jeff Powers has been in Room 180 at Haas Pavilion before. He's sat in the back heckling teammates during interviews. He's occasionally poked his head in. But on Tuesday, for the first time, he was the center of attention.

Powers was front and center after scoring 27 points in two games last weekend up in Washington in place of injured starter Allen Crabbe, who left early against Washington last Thursday after suffering a knee to the head which caused a mild concussion.

"It was amazing," said Powers, who set season-highs for minutes played with 11 against the Huskies and then 31 against Washington State. "I haven't had an experience like that ever, so I'm very grateful for -- I don't want to sound grateful that Allen went down; no one wants to see that -- but I think I took the opportunity and just went with it. I hope I get to have that opportunity again."

While head coach Mike Montgomery said that he hoped Crabbe would be available this Thursday for a 7:30 PM home tilt against USC, Powers would certainly not be that much of a downgrade, given his latest performances.

"I think that it would have been unreasonable to expect him to play that well," Montgomery said. "I don't even think that it was unexpected, but it was unreasonable. He made his first shot, and I think that gave him a lot of confidence, but he actually did some other things defensively, where he was smart, in terms of what we were trying to do and getting to Klay Thompson and he did a good job of getting back to block off. He is a smart player. I think there were probably some breakdowns late, and I don't think that they're breakdowns where anybody else wouldn't have done the same thing."

Powers shot 8-for-15 from the field on the trip, 5-for-8 from beyond the arc and grabbed five boards.

"He's always been a good shooter," Montgomery said. "In January or so, he started shooting the ball well in practice, which is why we kind of elected to say, 'Well, he can shoot well in practice, so let's see what he can do."

The Bears (13-12, 6-7 in the Pac-10) have, like Powers, surprised much of the college basketball world with their grit and toughness this year, despite losing four starters and a vast majority of their scoring from the 2010 Pac-10 Championship squad.

Cal now sits tied for fifth in the conference with -- of course -- rival Stanford, with five games left to play, the first two coming at home against the Trojans and second-place UCLA, which visits Haas for a 7 PM game this Sunday.

"Under the circumstances, with Crabbe out and that whole deal, I thought we acquitted ourselves pretty well," Montgomery said. "If you're basing it strictly on wins and losses -- it's not really fair, and I know that's the bottom line -- but it's a little bit like Washington losing three road games and you're wondering, 'What the heck?' We've played pretty competitively, generally speaking, all the way through, and I expect that we will continue to do that. The number of games that have been won or lost at the end is just every game. We knew that we were going to be in a lot of close games, and that's what's been happening."

In fact, the Bears have played eight conference games this season decided by four points or less or in overtime. Cal is 4-4 in those contests and 1-1 in overtime. The Bears have dropped their past three games, including the triple-overtime affair against first-place Arizona, a 32-point loss to third-place Washington and the four-point loss to fourth-place Washington State.

"The tailspin is due to just playing the two best teams in the conference, so I don't know that it's a tailspin," Montgomery said. "I do think that -- and I've said this forever -- it's who you play and where you play them. If you want to go back to the Arizona game, we had it. We did everything we needed to do there and we just didn't get it. I think the 55 minutes took its toll. I don't think there's any question that, given how many players we're playing, that that took its toll on our team, and then we go to a Washington team that's mad as a hornets' nest and it was like sticking a stick in a hornets' nest, is what it was like, and they come out and beat us pretty good."

The last time the Bears faced off against USC (13-12, 5-7), they effectively shut down the Trojans' leading scorer, junior Nikola Vucevic, in Los Angeles, limiting him to just 6 points and 10 boards in 32 minutes at the Galen Center on Jan. 22, en route to a dramatic 68-66 win.

"He got in foul trouble, and that hurt him; he got his third foul in the first half and I think that really hurt him," Montgomery said. "Then, we kind of went after him in the second half and I think he was tentative. He's a really good player, so we're going to have to be very careful with him. He got two and then he was a little tentative and got his third on kind of a mental error right before the half, which really was fortunate for us."

But, in playing mostly zone defense and shutting down Vucevic, Cal allowed USC's Donte Smith to go 8-of-12 from three-point range, a feat that he has yet to replicate either before or since. Montgomery is still committed to zoning the Trojans, however, when they come to Berkeley.

"Well, yeah, unless Smith shoots it like he did last time," he laughed. "Eight threes. That wasn't great."

Given the Bears' manpower situation and lack of experience, Montgomery is willing to do whatever it takes defensively to win with five games left in the regular season.

"(Going to the zone exclusively) would be giving in a little bit and we're going to do whatever we need to do to win a game," he said. "I'm not looking forward to the next game. If we need to play 40 minutes of man to win, we will, if it allows us to win. We will do that. It's just that game-in and game-out, you're probably not going to be able to do that, but if there's a game where we need to do something, then that's what we're going to do to win."

With the emergence of Powers, though, that short rotation has gotten just a bit longer.

"He played a lot of minutes (in Washington), and he hasn't played," Montgomery said. "I think it was good for his confidence, and it was good for our confidence to have him do that. Whether it be in the rotation or whether we just need somebody to go in, we can put him in and be able to count on him being able to potentially do some stuff."

Powers' teammate at Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, sophomore point guard Brandon Smith, has also flourished since taking over the starting gig, upping his assists-to-turnovers ratio from 1.25 (35-to-28) in nonconference play to a Pac-10-best 2.5 (63-to-25).

"He's been good, and we're still pushing him to be better in his decision-making," Montgomery said. "He's just got to get comfortable with what's a good play and what's not. He does a pretty good job on the push of finding people, and the balls that he's been giving guys, they've been scoring, so he gets an assist. He's been good with the ball, but he could probably set up some things if he'd shoot the ball a little better. Then, he could get people to cover him and he could do a little better with penetration, but he's made a lot of progress."

Last time out against USC, Smith shot 4-of-7 from the field and 2-of-2 from beyond the arc en route to a 12-point game.

"The best thing was that he got himself in terrific shape, so he doesn't get fatigued," Montgomery said. "He doesn't get beat down very badly. He can hang in there, physically."

After the 55-minute, triple-overtime thriller against the Wildcats, the Bears have been a bit sluggish recently, but after facing the Trojans on Thursday, they will have ample time to rest up for Sunday's tilt against the Bruins (18-7, 9-3), who come to the Bay Area having won five straight Pac-10 games and nine of their last 10 overall.

"I think they've kind of figured out how to use Joshua Smith a little bit better," Montgomery said of UCLA's 6-foot-10 freshman center who is averaging 6.3 boards per game. "He's a load. He's just a hard guy to guard. You don't have to go very far to find him, or worry too much about multiple moves, but the moves that he makes are very difficult. He's a huge guy."

Getting the ball inside to Joshua Smith -- who is shooting 57.5 percent from the field (sixth in the Pac-10) and is averaging 10.6 points per game -- is a veritable army of guards that include juniors Malcolm Lee, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson. Jones and Anderson lead the Bruins with 86 and 74 assists, respectively, while Lee paces the squad in scoring at 13.8 points per game (11th in the conference).

In addition to that trio, sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt is averaging 12.5 points per game, 8.0 boards (fifth in the Pac-10) and 1.96 blocked shots (tops in the conference).

"I think that Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee, Jones and Anderson are all good players. I think that all three -- or at least two of them -- are All-Americans, so it's not like they're not good players," said Montgomery. "They're playing very well together and I think they've figured out what they need to do to be successful. They're moving the ball well, they're helping each other out, Malcolm Lee is shooting very well, just a variety of things coming together right now for them."

Over the last 10 games, UCLA has averaged 69.3 points per game, but have outscored opponents by just 5.5 points per game. Last time out, the Bruins edged the Bears 86-84 at Pauley Pavilion thanks to a last-second tip-in by sophomore forward Reeves Nelson, who leads the conference with 2.0 blocks per game, scores 13.7 points per contest and is fifth in the conference in shooting (58 percent from the field).

"He plays really hard. He's very aggressive, very physical. You need to block him off, obviously. I think he leads the league in fast break points or something, where he's scored at the tail end of a break. He's generally slicing down the middle after the wings have gotten to their spots. He comes down the middle and you don't expect it and he catches the ball and finishes. You don't expect that, and they've done a good job of hitting him in that situation. He runs the floor pretty well and he's physical and he's moved outside a little bit. He can shoot the ball a little bit away from the basket."

In that last encounter, UCLA was able to move the ball quite effectively against the Cal zone, something that may very well come into play on Sunday.

"They have a lot of good players, and I think they're starting to play very well together," Montgomery said. "I thought last game that they moved the ball against the zone about as well as I've seen any UCLA team in a lot of years. They typically stagnate against the zone a little bit, but they move the ball very well. From what I've seen recently, they've improved on that."

Going into the weekend, the Bears sit at fifth place in the Pac-10, far higher than many preseason polls had them finishing.

"I'm pleased with their effort and their resiliency," Montgomery said. "Maybe we're not pushing them hard enough, but at the same time, you've got to applaud their effort. They hung in there pretty well, and I don't see any quit in them. That's all you can really ask. We've just got to make sure that we maintain that for the last five regular season games and get out of this thing what we can."


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