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January 11, 2012
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BERKELEY -- On March 18, 2011, Colorado ended California's NIT run with an 89-72 win over the Bears at Coors Center in Boulder, Colo., with Cal shorthanded thanks to injuries to Markhuri Sanders-Frison and Jorge Gutierrez.
On Thursday night at Haas Pavilion at 8 PM, it's time for Round Two with Tad Boyle's boys.
"Tad's done a really nice job," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "He's got a veteran team. He's got three senior starters that have been around. Andre Roberson -- their power forward - is a double-double guy. He's good."
While Sanders-Frison was the only casualty of graduation for the Bears (13-4, 3-1 Pac-12), the Buffaloes lost six players, including four top scorers -- two of whom -- Cory Higgins and Alec Burks -- were All-Big 12 selections.
There's another big difference between the last time the two squads faced off: location.
Colorado (11-4, 3-0) is no longer on its home court, where it has gone 9-1 this season. Instead, the Buffaloes are coming into Haas Pavilion, which has averaged 7,891 fans in 11 games -- all Cal wins -- for the fourth-highest average in the conference.
"It's really easy to play in front of a home crowd, because you've got the crowd on your side," said Bears freshman David Kravish. "You start building momentum, not only do you feel the momentum, but the crowd starts adding its energy, and it gives energy to us. I think that really helps, because it gives us even more momentum. It's like, double what we'd have if we were on the road."
That said, Colorado is on a six-game winning streak in its first season as a member of the Pac-12, and returns two starters in Austin Dufault and Nate Tomlinson, along with lettermen Roberson, Shannon Sharpe, Shane Harris-Tunks, Ben Mills and Trey Eckloff.
True freshman Spencer Dinwiddie is having quite the campaign in his first college season, averaging 11.1 pints and 3.7 rebounds per game.
"They're very solid. They probably have spread their scoring out a little bit more. I would say that Carlon Brown is a very adequate substitute for -- I don't know whether it's Burkes necessarily, but at least for Higgins, in terms of a quality scorer," said Bears head coach Mike Montgomery. "They lose those two kids, but Carlon Brown steps right in as a fifth-year guy, and is a very good player, so that gives them a fourth guy that's a veteran. They're running the same stuff, basically. They're tough. They know what they're trying to do, and they've got point guard leadership, so I'd say, yes."
Brown is averaging a team-high 14.1 points per game, to go along with 3.3 boards and 2.3 assists, but he will face off with Gutierrez -- one of the best defenders in the conference, who has shut down one of the nation's best scorers already in Weber State's Damian Lillard. As a team, Cal ranks second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, holding teams to 60.4 points per game. On the boards, the Bears pace the circuit in rebounding defense, allowing 29.6 boards per game to the opposition. Cal is also tops in assist-to-turnover ratio in the league with a 1.36 mark. The Buffaloes rank eighth in that particular statistic, and are 10th in turnover margin at -1.47.
Five of the Buffaloes' games have come on the road, including three of their four losses. Montgomery, though, does not see Colorado as untested away from Boulder.
"I don't know about that," Montgomery said. "They've got double-figure wins, and those teams that have been able to win double-figures, I was looking at the paper today, and everybody crabs about our league, but we have seven teams that have double-figure wins at this stage of the season, so obviously, some people are doing a good job."
One of the big reasons for Colorado's success has been the play of Roberson, who is averaging 11.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. At 6-foot-7, Roberson possesses a superior vertical leap and is a big factor on the boards, but can sometimes disappear when he starts to press. He will be going up against a big man rotation of Kravish, senior Harper Kamp and sophomore Richard Solomon.
As a true freshman, Kravish has been a revelation, averaging 5.9 points and 5.8 boards in 24.2 minutes per game. When he was deciding upon which college to attend just about a year ago, the Buffaloes were one of Kravish's finalists.
"They were one of my top three schools that I was considering," Kravish said. "They've got a great coaching staff, and I really got along well with them. The team just wasn't the right fit."
Kravish did have one connection in Boulder in Burks, though, and was well-acquainted with the program.
"I followed them a little bit, and I actually kind of knew Alec Burks a little bit, because he played on the same AAU team that I did," Kravish said. "He was in a different age group, of course, but he was in the same organization. I kind of knew him a little bit."
With Burks gone -- along with the other big losses -- Kravish is still not surprised by how well Colorado has done in its inaugural Pac-12 season, with wins over Utah, Washington and Washington State.
"They've got a great team, and a good coaching staff, so anything can happen when a bunch of guys go out and play well together," Kravish said. "When you're well-coached, it's easy to play well."
Under the tutelage of Montgomery, Kravish has thrived in Berkeley. With the intermittent absence of Solomon, Kravish has been thrust into the limelight as a starting center, starting seven of the 17 games he's played in. When he starts, Kravish averages 5.4 rebounds, 6.6 points and 1.4 blocks per game in 29.3 minutes.
"It's the same mindset: I've got to go out and play hard and do whatever I have to do to help the team win," Kravish said. "Whether that's coming off the bench or starting, it doesn't really matter to me. If Rich started the next game, it wouldn't phase me or anything. I'd just come off the bench and go out with an aggressive mindset, just go out and try to grab every rebound I can."
Solomon has played in two games since returning from a stress reaction in his foot, playing 28 minutes against Oregon State and Oregon. Against the Beavers, Solomon scored five points and pulled down one rebound. Against the Ducks, Solomon scored six points and pulled down 10 boards, tallying three blocks.
"He's very aggressive. He got after the thing, probably a little bit hungry, but he's our best rebounder, and we've acknowledged that all the way along. He's at 230 pounds, he also can handle himself physically, with the big guys, so he went in and made an impact. It's a process. He's finishing plays and all that stuff, but it is a process."
The big forward out of Los Angeles has missed six games due to injury and a brief suspension.
"He's been pretty good. I think some things have happened, and he's realizing how much basketball means to him," Montgomery said. "It's just a process of maturation."
Solomon is suffering no pain, to Montgomery's knowledge, but the team is still taking precautions so to not aggravate the stress reaction in his left foot. Montgomery said that it was "irrelevant" whether Solomon starts or comes off the bench.
"He hasn't had many practices. He still hasn't had many practices, so it is irrelevant, but he's, practice-wise, even with the situation with the Oregons, we kind of cautioned him to limited minutes; since he went this, let's keep him off the foot now, so he's still limited a little bit," Montgomery said.
Both Solomon and Kravish will have to contend with Roberson and Dufault -- who checks in at 6-foot-9, 225 -- and a defense which has held opponents to 61.6 points per game -- fourth in the conference.
"They're man. They hedge screens. They play good, solid man," Montgomery said. "They've got good help-side defense, they help on ball screens, they're pretty physical. They're veteran, so they know what they're doing."