The epic 2012-13 schedule doesn't get any easier for Wisconsin yet. The Badgers, still licking their wounds from last week's home loss to Virginia, invite California (6-0) to the Kohl Center at 3 p.m. for a Sunday afternoon Pac-12 battle.
Given its 4-3 start, the game is bordering on "must-win" for Wisconsin, which lacks a good non-conference win. Cal, meanwhile, beat Georgia Tech and Pacific en route to a DirecTV Classic tournament championship. But the Bears haven't been tested like Wisconsin has yet. Perhaps this is why the Badgers are still favored by Ken Pomeroy with 76% confidence (69-61 W) in a 63-possession game.
To help us understand the Cal program under formidable head coach Mike Montgomery, we enlisted an army of opinions from that beacon of Golden Bear sports, California Golden Blogs. (Check out my Q&A with them over there as well.)
B5Q: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'd guess Cal thinks of themselves as a football school more than a basketball school. And I'm sure there are plenty of Green Bay Packer fans out there thanks to Aaron Rodgers. Where does basketball fit into the grand scheme of being a California Golden Bear fan? Do you feel the program gets the respect it deserves?
atomsareenough: We do and we don't. Anytime the football team flops (which unfortunately is not an infrequent occurrence), you definitely hear the refrain "Ehh, we're a basketball school anyway." Obviously it's not mutually exclusive, but definitely the last few years we've been able to get a lot more satisfaction out of the basketball teams, both of which are well-coached and on the rise. So, it's nice to be able to console ourselves with that. The men's team won a conference championship a couple of years back, and we've been making the NCAA Tournament regularly. I think we're hoping we can make it to a Sweet 16 before long. However, we're not flashy, and we're in a conference with UCLA and Arizona, so they end up attracting a lot of the attention, and we feel like we get overlooked. Obviously the conference as a whole has been down lately, but even then, Cal has been consistently pretty good, and we don't get a lot of respect.
Kodiak: I'd like to think that basketball is right up there with football, but realistically, the grid iron is still king. I think the hardcore fans are just as dedicated, but their overall numbers are fewer. Considering that Cal won it's first conference title in fifty years and should have won another last year, you'd think there would be more of a following. But, pre-season basketball is usually modestly followed. Most of the fans don't really start showing up until conference play, particularly for rivalry games.
NorCalNick: Well, there have been times when Cal was arguably a 'basketball school,' specifically in the era between Bruce Snyder and Jeff Tedford, when Cal football was a barren wasteland and the excitement of Jason Kidd, Shareef Abdul-Rahim and others made for an electric basketball atmosphere. Unfortunately, Ben Braun's long decline as a coach and Tedford's revival of the football program really seemed to ebb excitement over basketball, and as a consequence Monty's excellent teams haven't gotten quite the level of fan enthusiasm that they should. I think it's gotten a bit better each year, and with Monty's recent recruiting class combined with some excellent teams, Haas should be rocking over the next few years.
B5Q: I'd also like to know what makes your Bears so "golden" ... is it just the frosted tips?
Kodiak: We get plenty of sunshine 365 days a year and sparkle in the darkness.
NorcalNick: Well, the Golden Bear mascot refers to the Ursus arctos californicus, a now-extinct subspecies of the Brown Bear. It does look gold in comparison to the much darker brown bear, but I have a feeling that the name is a romantic connection to the gold rush, which is why we're so fond of adding the 'gold' prefix to a bunch of things out here
atomsareenough: We are the flagship university of the Golden State. Why wouldn't we be golden?
B5Q: I really applaud Justin Cobbs' 2010 decision to escape the dumpster known as Minnesota and transfer back home to the West Coast. He played sparingly in an big Gopher victory over Wisconsin as a freshman, and now scores 20 ppg for the Bears. Tell us what kind of player Cobbs has developed into.
atomsareenough: Cobbs is probably our best all-around player. He's a solid PG, consistent on defense, very capable at running the offense and facilitating, he's got a very good handle, he's an accurate (but selective) shooter, he can drive to the basket and score with ease, he's added a pull-up floater to his arsenal that's pretty much unguardable ... he's pretty much the key player that makes this team tick right now. Allen Crabbe is our best shooter and scorer, but I'd say that Cobbs is actually more important, and I'd guess he's probably the leader of this team.
Kodiak: Strong with the ball and quick enough to get wherever he wants on the court. He's very adept at pushing it in transition. He's always had a pretty solid shot from deep as well as the ability to take it to the rim. This year, he's added a mid-range and pull-up game. The most significant improvement for him this year is his decision-making. He's showing a good knack for when to run the offense and when to call his own number.
NorcalNick: He's really been a great player at Cal the minute he became eligible last year. He's quick, he makes excellent decisions with the ball, and he's got a solidly above-average jump shot. I wouldn't say that there's any one area of his game that jumps out as being elite, but he does just about everything you would typically ask a point-guard to do at an above-average level.
B5Q: Cobbs and fellow junior Allen Crabbe (22 ppg) form quite the 1-2 scoring punch on a team that likes to plays fast-paced and score points. Should Wisconsin fans expect a Third Amigo to make a big impact on Sunday as well?
atomsareenough: Scoring-wise, it's pretty well distributed beyond Cobbs and Crabbe. There are several other guys who can score into the double digits on any given night, including forwards Richard Solomon, David Kravish, and Robert Thurman, as well as guards Brandon Smith and Tyrone Wallace. However, in terms of all-around performance, Richard Solomon is probably the X-factor. He's got enough physical talent that he can make an impact on both ends of the floor. He just needs to keep his head in the game and not pick up silly fouls.
NorcalNick: There are a number of potential options, but the most likely answer is either Richard Solomon or David Kravish, our post duo. Solomon is more physically gifted, but also more prone to mental errors, and occasionally lacks confidence in his own abilities. Kravish is the more disciplined, but he's smaller and sometimes has trouble against larger posts. Both are capable of double-double performances if they're ready to play and get a decent match-up.
Kodiak: Probably not now that Ricky Kreklow has been ruled out with injury. The extra scoring will be a group effort between Smith, Wallace, Kravish, Solomon, and Thurman. On any given night, each of them are good for 8-10 points.
B5Q: It's Year 5 of the Mike Montgomery Era. We know the guy can coach and he's already brought one conference title to Cal. Describe any stylistic differences you see between Cal under Montgomery and the previous Ben Braun regime, with on or off the court?
Kodiak: Offensively, we no longer pass it around the perimeter for thirty seconds, then heave up a contested shot. On defense, players are much more fundamentally sound with their assignments. For a basketball fan, Monty is a lot of fun to watch. He makes good adjustments, his players get better under his tutelage, and he's a straight shooter with regards to what he sees.
NorcalNick: Ben Braun was simply incapable of constructing a decent offense. If you handed him a guy who could go and get points on his own in isolation - say, a guy like Leon Powe - then Cal could score points. But if you gave him a group of guys with decent talent but nobody who could break down a defense by himself, Cal's offense devolved into a bunch of aimless passes and a bad jump shot.
Monty changed all that immediately, and Cal has had a consistently above-average offense despite having what would generally be described as average at best talent, at least from a recruiting rankings perspective.
The other big change is that Monty's program hasn't hemorrhaged players like Braun's teams always did. Monty has lost some of Braun's guys, but for the most part players he has recruited have stayed and developed and played well.
B5Q: Cal seems to have pretty good size and apparently blocks a ton of shots. Quickly breakdown where you see Cal having an advantage against Wisconsin, as well as where you see the Badgers might give the Bears trouble.
atomsareenough: We're capable of being a good defensive team in stretches, but we also go through some periods of low effort and we are susceptible to lapses. I haven't watch a ton of Wisconsin this year, but from games I've seen over the last few years, Wisconsin is very patient in the half court, moves the ball around well, shoots well from the outside, and can make you pay if you don't play defense for the whole shot clock. So, if we're not disciplined or get impatient, then that's where the Badgers could really hurt us. Looking at the Badger roster, I'm going to guess we have a size and athleticism advantage. Looks like neither team has a very deep bench right now though, so that may be a wash.
NorcalNick: To be honest, post play has been a concern for Cal this year, in part because of depth. We all love Robert 'the Thurmanator' Thurman, but ultimately he's a DIII transfer walk-on - not the type of guy you'd expect to be the first big off the bench for a major conference team with serious aspirations. Cal's depth in the post is virtually nonexistent.
I think Wisconsin's slow pace actually plays pretty well into Cal's strengths. Cal's lack of inside depth might not be exposed because Wisconsin doesn't play fast enough and aggressively enough to draw a ton of fouls to get the bigs on the bench. And Cal's biggest weakness over the last few years have been fast, athletic teams that can pressure Cal's ball handlers, disrupt the offense, and get out and run in transition - things that the Badgers haven't really done this year based on what I've seen with my eyes and on the stat sheet.
I'm worried that Cal has trouble consistently defending the 3-point line and Wisconsin gets hot from behind the arc. I'm worried that Cal won't be able to get out in transition as much as they'd prefer against Wisconsin's disciplined defense. I'm worried that Cal may not have a defender that can matchup against Jared Berggren. Ultimately I'm worried that these are two similarly talented, well-coached teams, and that home field advantage will likely swing the game in favor of the Badgers.
Kodiak: Actually, the Cal bigs have been a bit inconsistent this year. They've struggled on defense and with being strong on the defensive glass. If there's an area where Cal looks to have an advantage, it would be with our duo of Cobbs/Crabbe.
B5Q: The Pac-12 might be down again this year. Arizona has it rollin' with Sean Miller, but who knows what's going on over at UCLA. Based on what you've seen from Cal's 6-0 start, what's the outlook/expectations for the team this year? What the biggest hurdle in the way of a conference title?
atomsareenough: Even with UCLA and Washington having trouble, I think the Pac-12 is clearly better this year. Well, at least the bottom of the conference isn't as embarrassing as it has been. Right now I'd say we're probably the second-best team in conference after Arizona. I think we're definitely a tourney team, and hopefully we can get favorable enough seeding this time, and have a little more depth so that we're not worn out in March. I would like to see us get past the second round.
In terms of the conference title, obviously Arizona will be a tough team to handle, especially if their young players are as good as advertised. What we really need though, is depth, especially at forward. We're hoping that Richard Solomon takes a big step this year, but beyond him, Kravish, and former walk-on Robert Thurman, we need another big man to step up and give us some useful minutes. So far, neither Bak Bak nor Christian Behrens has shown much. Behrens is young and inexperienced though, so he might be able to take a few steps forward this year.
NorcalNick: It's hard to say at the moment. With UCLA's mini-implosion, Arizona is the presumed team to beat. But they also haven't played anybody, and with so many freshmen expected to make key contributions that adds a level of uncertainty. Colorado and Oregon both look potentially tough. But I think the reality is that Cal can reasonbly aspire to a regular season conference title in the better-but-still-somewhat-down Pac-12.
If they fall a little short, that's OK presuming that they make the NCAA tournament. The conference has done enough that the Bears should be dancing in March assuming decent health.
Kodiak: I wish I could stay Josh Smith (hiyo!) ... but he quit. Arizona is the sexy pick because of their last two classes. I personally think that Colorado might be the team to beat.
B5Q: People who make such statements like to compare Madison (and the campus vibe specifically) to a couple of other big university towns -- Boulder, Austin, and Berkeley being chief among them. But let's say we were making a bet on this game and I offered up some combination of brats, cheese and beer for a loss. What are you putting up as collateral that would make me want to fly out to Berkeley immediately? (Note: "sunshine" is not a fair answer.)
atomsareenough: Ha, no sunshine to offer you today anyway; it's pouring buckets out here. Let me just say, I love Madison and UW; I have multiple friends and relatives who are Wisconsin alums, and I enjoy visiting out there. You guys are my favorite Big Ten team. That aside, we do have a few things we could offer in exchange. We here in California can hold our own in the cheese and beer department, you know. We've even got a pretty good place for brats (Top Dog, if you're ever out here -- we even started selling it during Cal football games at Memorial Stadium this year). So, I'll skip the highbrow gourmet Chez Panisse stuff for now and offer up: 1) Kickass burritos, any style you want, because really there isn't any good Mexican food east of the Rockies; 2) Pizza from Zachary's or the Cheese Board; and 3) Some delightful microbrews from Bear Republic or Lagunitas.
NorcalNick: Easily one of the best features of Berkeley is the incredible quality and diversity of available food. Of course, that diversity means that Berkeley doesn't really have any definitively representative dish to offer. You could ask 10 Cal grads what food they would offer you and you'd get 10 different answers. The safest answer is probably a (prohibitively expensive) meal at Chez Panisse, a restaurant run by a Berkeley grad that has had a huge impact on the course of California cuisine through the local food movement.
That, or delicious, hole-in-the-wall Chinese food. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.
Thanks again to the atomsareenough, NorcalNick, and Kodiak for providing us with some informative answers. You can check all of them out regularly over at California Golden Blogs.
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