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Q & A: Cal Golden Bears vs. Ole Miss in NIT Scuffle

The good people over at California Golden Blogs were kind enough to lend some perspective to Wednesday's NIT match between our Rebels and Cal.

They'll have our answers to their questions tomorrow. We'll link it once it's up, but we've got their answers to our questions so let's jump on that.

The Golden Blogs had a few perspectives on what their team has gone through this season, what kind of atmosphere to expect and even what it means to have a bear as a mascot.

1.) One of our common opponents this season was Southern Miss. What happened in that game for Cal that caused a loss?

Ohio Bear:  The USM game was one that got away.  We led by 6 with under 3 minutes to play but couldn't close the deal.  Cal was still searching for its identity a bit in that game.  Since departed (transferred) guard Gary Franklin took most of our shots back then -- and missed a lot of them in the USM game.  We also had trouble on the boards -- as I recall, USM got a lot of 2nd chance opportunities. 

Atomsareenough:  That was an ugly, ugly game and was probably more of an outlier than anything to really build an analysis from. First off, the refs dominated the game from start to finish, calling 53 fouls. Though it was fairly evenly called, Southern Miss took better advantage of their free throw opportunities, making 25 out of 29 attempts. Aside from the slow pace, the fact that both our starting bigs got in serious foul trouble at a point in the season when we were overly dependent on them hurt us significantly. Since that game, Gary Franklin (who was 1 for 8 from the floor) has left for Baylor, and Allen Crabbe has stepped into the void and blossomed into Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. Brandon Smith has also evolved into a serviceable point guard, which we wouldn't have anticipated before the season began. The one thing to take away from that game, however, is that we're pretty susceptible to talented scorers like Flowers that can drive to the basket.

2.) Which Cal players should Ole Miss fans be most worried about? Any under the radar players whose statistics don't tell the whole story about them?

Ohio Bear:  IMO, Ole Miss should be most worried about Jorge Gutierrez and Allen Crabbe.  Gutierrez is the heart and soul of the Bears and is relentless.  He has a knack for getting under your skin and forcing mistakes with his defense.  Crabbe is the Pac-10 freshman of the year and has been steadily improving all season long.  He is Cal's best scorer and has very good range.  For "under the radar" players, I'd say Brandon Smith, our point guard.  You think he's not a big offensive threat, but he is good at keeping Cal under control and has made timely shots for us this year.  

atomsareenough:  Definitely worry about Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez. Gutierrez isn't under the radar, but definitely statistics don't tell the whole story in his case. He's a fearless scrapper. He plays with incredible intensity, and impacts the game in lots of little ways that might not show up on the stat sheet. Harper Kamp flies under the radar a bit; he's a wily post player that's really made the most of his ability. He's not the most athletic guy, but he's got good footwork and he's what the commentators like to call a "high basketball IQ" guy. One other thing to keep in mind is that we're not a very deep team, so it's possible that the heavy load of minutes on our short rotation could be taking its toll at this point in the year.

3.) We just got a bear for our on-field mascot. Give us some advice as to how one celebrates that. Any cool bear stuff?

Ohio Bear:  Cool Bear stuff? You need this for transportation.  

And this for refreshment.

atomsareenough:  I think "cool" is probably rather subjective. Our bear mascot, Oski, has more of a professorial sort of demeanor than your typical mascot, but he also has a fun-loving side, and has been known to cavort with cheerleaders, drink alcohol through his eye hole, and administer beatdowns to ugly trees. The main thing to know about bears though, is that they're not flashy attention-mongers. You don't bring a live bear to a stadium, like you might with a bulldog, or a steer, or even a buffalo, because a bear will wreak some serious havoc. People know to leave bears well enough alone and just let them be quietly awesome.

4.) What's the general feeling around the Cal program playing in the NIT? Is it what was expected at the beginning of the season? 

Ohio Bear:  Inevitably, there's some disappointment when you're not in the NCAA Tournament, especially when (like us) there were a handful of close games that we lost that might have enhanced our resume if we won them.  But I think most of our fans would agree that making the NIT is a very big accomplishment for this team after losing 4 starters off last year's team, losing 4 guys we expected to have this year, and having one of our top recruits transfer midseason.  This was one of Mike Montgomery's best coaching jobs of his career. 
atomsareenough:  Well, we had 4 senior starters from last year's Pac-10 Champion team graduate, including the conference Player of the Year. So, that was a huge loss right off the bat. Add in another senior bench player graduating, 2 more experienced guys (potential starters) transferring out pre-season, plus our 7-footer from last year suddenly deciding to go pro in China, and one of our freshmen recruits out for the season with a groin injury, and we had every reason to expect that this would be a rebuilding year, and while we knew we had talented guys coming in and that Monty was a great coach, making the postseason was a hope, not an expectation. When Gary Franklin left mid-season after a bad loss to arch-rival Stanfurd (yes, that's how we spell it), expectations were depressed even further. If you'd told us that we'd have a winning conference season and be a 4-seed in the NIT, it would've seemed like unreasonably sanguine prediction. Now, though, considering how close most of our losses have been, even against good teams like Arizona, we feel like a few points here and there and we could've been in the NCAA tourney. But, it's a young team, and maybe if we can win a few games in the NIT it would be better than a one-and-done in the tourney.

5.) For Rebel fans making the trip for the game (maybe 40 or 50 people), what can they expect atmosphere-wise and around the campus?

atomsareenough:  At Haas, it can get pretty loud in stretches, but it's not always at a consistent frenzied pitch. It's been getting better, though. Still, it's a little hard to predict how excited the crowd will be for an NIT game against an SEC team, compared to when some of our more bitter conference foes come to town. There might be some rallies and such right before the game, and I'm hopeful there will be plenty of folks at the game, but for the most part around campus, it will probably be a fairly normal Wednesday, with people going to class and prepping for midterms and such. Since Berkeley's a fairly dense urban setting, there aren't really a lot of large parking lots available for big-time tailgating, either, sadly. So, I wouldn't expect a ton of partying, but I would expect a good game.

  Unfortunately, I don't think you'll get the full Cal gameday experience, but that's kind of the nature of the NIT -- it's a second-tier tournament game played on short notice on a weeknight.  I myself will probably have to ditch work an hour early to make a 6pm tipoff in Berkeley.
Here's a link to a recap post I wrote three years ago, after the Bears last hosted an NIT game (also a 4 v. 5 matchup):
It may not be entirely indicitave of what to expect (2008 was a lot more disappointing for Cal, and our coach would be fired within a couple weeks of that game, whereas this season has been a rather pleasant surprise in a near-total rebuilding year), but if you're heading out here, it's best to temper your expectations.