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March 14, 2010BERKELEY-The Cal basketball team sat in its locker room at Haas Pavilion, waiting. Like every other NCAA basketball team without an automatic bid in hand to the NCAA Tournament, the Bears had to wait to see where the Selection Committee would have them go, and if they would go at all. Cal had to wait until the final-and furthest-bracket was announced to discover its fate, but this afternoon, the Bears found out that they would indeed be dancing for the second year in a row.
Cal (23-10) may have dropped the Pac-10 Conference Tournament finale to Washington, but the Bears managed to snag a No. 8-seed as an at-large bid in the South Regional of the NCAA Tournament, and will face No. 9-seed Louisville (20-12) and veteran head coach Rick Pitino on Friday in Jacksonville, Fla.
"For us, we earned the right to be in the tourney," said head coach Mike Montgomery. "People sometimes don't recognize how hard that is, and I don't think I did initially either. It's hard to get in the Tournament. There's a lot of good basketball being played, and with only 64 teams getting to go, it's a privilege to go and we're going to represent the University of California and these kids are going to represent themselves in the best fashion we possibly can."
Both Cal and the Huskies were invited to the NCAA Tournament, with Washington's No. 11-seed in the East Regional bracket being announced before the regular-season conference champion Bears knew their fate.
"I wished they'd announced it the first bracket," Montgomery joked. "It would've been easier, but we're in the tournament and that's what we played all year for. We're happy. We're excited about it."
This will be Montgomery's second trip to the Big Dance in two years as Cal's skipper, and with last year's experience proving to be quite a good teacher, both he and his charges are loathe to repeat the disappointing first-round upset loss to Maryland.
"A lot of it has to do with us just not wanting the season to be over, speaking for the four seniors," said senior point guard and Pac-10 Player of the Year Jerome Randle. "Just playing on that level, losing that game, I know Jorge (Gutierrez), he was really hurt losing in the NCAA Tournament. I honestly don't feel like we want to experience that again. I think we had a very successful year, in winning the Pac-10, playing against ranked teams before the Pac-10 (schedule), we feel like we are battle tested. We are ready to play."
The senior class in particular-Randle, Theo Robertson, Patrick Christopher, Nikola Knezevic and Jamal Boykin-has a sense of urgency, especially given what they have already accomplished in winning the conference for the first time in 50 years.
"Without question, I think we've already built a legacy this year, and, it's sad, but at the end of the day, you're only as good as your last game," Boykin said. "You're remembered for how you finish. We want to make sure we finish strong, and whether it's in a win or a loss, that we play our best, we give our best effort, we prepare the best, we have all the best intentions, we focus, we execute on offense, we know the game plan, we got the right amount of sleep, recover our bodies well-all the little things and all the big things. We want to make sure that we do them this week and from here on out so that we will leave no doubt that we gave it everything we had.
Despite having a bit longer to get ready for the Cardinals, Montgomery believes that this group is not ready to rest up, nor can it afford to at this point.
"I think they're used to playing. I think they're at a game-level practice level mindset, so a day off here is not going to change what we have," Montgomery said. "We're just going to have to push through anything, knowing that a loss is the end of the season for them, and these seniors are determined to continue to play."
During their non-conference schedule, the Bears faced fellow Tournament-bound teams Murray State, Ohio State, Syracuse, New Mexico, Kansas and UC Santa Barbara. Among those, the Buckeyes are slotted as the No. 2-seed in the Midwest Regional, the Orangemen as the No. 1-seed in the West Regional, the Aggies as the No. 3-seed in the East Regional and the Jayhawks as the No. 1-seed in the Midwest.
A shorthanded Cal team fell 95-73 to Syracuse in New York on Nov. 19, then narrowly lost to Ohio State 76-70 the next day. The Bears lost a six-point lead with four minutes left to New Mexico and fell 86-78 in Albuquerque on Dec. 2, and lost to Kansas in Lawrence 84-69 on Dec. 22. Since then, Cal has had a chance to get as healthy as it is going to get, and finished the season strong, winning six of its past seven games and nine of its past 11.
"You know you've played good people. Once we figured out who we were and what we needed to do, I thought we'd gotten better," Montgomery said. "There are still areas that our decision-making sometimes gets us in trouble, but it's also what got us where we are, so sometimes you just live with that. But, we're playing better defensively, I think we understand roles, Jamal's been playing a lot better here towards the tail-end of the season, so I don't think there's any question that we're playing better."
The Cardinals faced the Orangemen twice this season, winning 66-60 on Feb. 14 and 78-68 on March 6.
"We didn't have Theo that game, and Syracuse is unique in that they play a zone, and we could have really used Theo that game," Boykin said of the two teams' one common opponent. "I feel very confident in the fact that we had a very tough preseason. We played with Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed, and we battled with them throughout the whole game. It was still a game with about four minutes to go, so we know what it looks like as far as playing the big-time teams, and we're not intimidated."
Though the travel may take its toll on the team, the Bears will start play a day later than the other half of the South bracket, allowing for a marginally easier travel schedule and more time for the club to adjust.
"Three time zones is not the best scenario however you slice it, but that does give us two full days and whatever we can muster Wednesday to prepare," Montgomery said. "We've played on Sunday before and had to leave to play a Thursday game in the east, and that's really hard, but this gives us a little more breathing room."
Louisville, who was bounced by Cincinnati in the first round of the Big East Tournament after finishing tied for fifth in the conference, comes in with quite a hefty history of tournament success. Louisville is the 18th winningest college basketball program in NCAA Division I history. Under Pitino, the Cardinals reached their first Final Four in 19 years with an appearance in 2005, reached the second round in 2007, the Elite Eight in 2008 and again in 2009. Montgomery and Pitino have never, in their lengthy careers, faced one another on the court.
"Louisville (is) obviously a storied program with a great history," Montgomery said. "Rick's a great coach. So, it's certainly a big challenge. I didn't think there was any question about being in, it was just a question of finding out where you're going to go and who you're going to play and having time to prepare for what you need to do."
The winner of the Cal-Louisville matchup will take on the winner of Friday's 1-vs.-16 game between Duke (28-5) and the winner of the play-in game between Arkansas Pine-Bluff and Winthrop, which takes place on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio.
"I still talk to some of the guys," Boykin-a Duke transfer-said on the possibility of facing his old teammates. "But, I don't want that to be the focus. The focus is Louisville. We're just taking it one game at a time, and the complete focus is on Louisville."
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