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Know Thy Opponent (California) - A Q&A with California Golden Blogs

Tomorrow, USC will head across the bay to face arguably the Pac-10's best team, the Cal Bears, who were picked second in the preseason media poll. However, the Bears are coming off a one-point overtime loss to UCLA on Wednesday so they are certainly a beatable opponent for a USC team, presently ranked second in the conference at 2-1. To preview their Saturday machup with the Bears, we brought in Avinash Kunnath, TwistNHook, and ragnarok of California Golden Blogsto help us breakdown the upcoming contest:

Q: Just over a week into Pac-10 conference play, what are the expectations that fans have for the 2009-2010 Cal Bears? Is it conference title or bust? Or would they be satisfied with just a top 3-4 finish?

A: I always felt the Bears had a very good chance to win the Pac-10, but a lot of it would depend on their mental focus. Wednesday night illustrated that this team can still lose that focus and plays down to their talent. They did it last year against Oregon State and now are seemingly vulnerable against any of the bottom dwellers in the conference.

It'll be very hard for Cal to win the Pac-10 (20% odds?), but more importantly is to finish in the top 2, since it doesn't seem like a guarantee the tournament picks anyone beyond that. A tourney appearance is what we all wanted, and it would be fairly disappointing if we ended up in the NIT again, Ben Braun's favorite refuge.

Q: The Bears just lost to a largely inferior UCLA team by one point in overtime. Was this an aberration or indicative of a larger problem?

A: How's this for an aberration? Cal, on the year, has made 37% of their three-point attempts, but versus UCLA, the Bears shot just 2-18 from behind the arc. Christopher was 0-3. Robertson was 1-5. Randle was an awful 1-8 (though that one was a huge shot that tied the game very late in regulation). Keep in mind, Robertson and Randle both shoot about 45%, and even Christopher is over 30%. Most of these shots were taken by good shooters getting open looks at the basket, the kind of shots these guys normally make. I haven't seen the Bears shoot this poorly in a long time, and I don't expect it to happen again for a while either.

Of course, credit is also due to UCLA, who kept battling even when down double-digits in the second half. To say that their defense had nothing to do with the Bears' poor shooting would be disingenuous. Still, if the Bears have even an average shooting night (or Dragovic doesn't get hot from three just as the Bears go cold), Cal could have won this game going away.

Q: How do you feel Cal's top-notch backcourt of Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher matches up against USC's quality guards Mike Gerrity and Dwight Lewis?

A: Mike Gerrity vs Jerome Randle will be a very intriguing matchup of seniors...Gerrity doesn't provide as huge a defensive strain on Randle's abilities as UCLA's points did on Wednesday. He seems to be an excellent attacker and distributor, so if he can get the step on Jerome on a few occasions that'll open up opportunities for him to get to the line by attacking the basket or getting the ball to a man left open by a scrambling Cal defender. As for the other side, it's hard to really see Gerrity stopping Randle's all a matter of whether Jerome is making his shots. Against UCLA he wasn't.

Dwight Lewis vs Patrick Christopher is probably a tossup--their games seem pretty similar; pretty good wings, have some nice hops and decent athleticism, both could use help defensively. I'd say Christopher settles on his shot more than he should, and Lewis probably gets to the line much better, but PC also has a better jumper.

I give it a slight edge because of Randle, but the wildcard along the perimeter could be Theo Robertson. Theo is the guy no one gives much pub to on our team, but he could be the most complete guy we have. He's versatile, good at attacking the basket and breaking the zone, can stroke the three, and a pretty solid one-on-one defender. He was the best player for the Bears in the UCLA upset, and singlehandedly kept us in it through the end of the 4th and overtime when the rest of our team looked out-of-sync.

Q: But everybody knows about Randle and Christopher. Outside of those two, who should 'SC fans keep an eye on?

A: Max Zhang. This China native has long been a fan favorite, but is now finally starting to come into his own. I'll quote liberally from the AP here:

BERKELEY, CALIF. - Max Zhang's long arms in the middle of the paint made things tough on Stanford all game.

He altered shots. He dunked on offense. He fired up his California teammates and the fans, too.

"It pumps everybody up. The crowd obviously loves Max," point guard Jerome Randle said. "His confidence is at an all-time high. That really makes our team better. I told him he's the guy who can take us far."

Zhang provided a big boost off the bench for the Golden Bears. The 7-foot-3 sophomore had a career-high 13 points to go with four rebounds and three blocked shots.

"Max was huge," coach Mike Montgomery said. "Doggone, the kid's long and he does cause problems for people. Everybody's pleased when Max does well and I think everybody feels good about it."

Zhang went 5 for 7 from the floor and hit 3 of 5 free throws as Cal scored its most points against Stanford since a 101-91 victory on March 5, 1977.

"Tonight is the best I've experienced at Cal, because it's an important rivalry game and it's the first conference game," Zhang said. "There are a lot of details I have to keep working on."

Q: What's your prediction for the game?

A: Since I hate making predictions, I'll just go by what Pomeroy tells me...which is 65-56 California. Sounds good to me!