March 15, 2010
With its first conference championship since 1960 in hand, California has earned its 16th bid to the NCAA Tournament and will face Louisville of the Big East Conference in a first-round game Friday in Jacksonville, Fla. The Golden Bears are seeded eighth in the South Region, while the Cardinals are the ninth seed.
The winner of Friday's contest will play the winner of the game between No. 1 seed Duke (29-5, 13-3) and either Arkansas-Pine Bluff (17-15, 4-4) or Winthrop (19-13, 12-6), who will meet in the play-in game. The regional semifinals and final will be held in Houston, Texas, March 26 & 28, with the Final Four in Indianapolis April 3 & 5.
The Bears have an all-time record of 18-15 in the NCAA Tournament, which includes the 1959 national championship and a runner-up finish in 1960. More recently, Cal reached the Sweet 16 in 1993 and '97 and the second round in both 2002 and '03. Last season, Cal returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, falling to Maryland in the first round.
This year's Cal squad finished the regular season with a 23-10 overall record and a 13-5 mark in the Pac-10 to claim the Pac-10 crown by one game over runner-up Arizona State. The Bears reached the Pac-10 Tournament final for the second time (also 2006), but fell to Washington. Cal was 15-1 at home in Haas Pavilion, second only to the 2002 squad that went 17-1 in the 10-year history of the facility.
Cal faced one of the nation's most difficult nonconference schedule, including four teams that would wind up the regular season in the Associated Press Top 10. The Bears battled both Syracuse and Ohio State in New York and paid visits to Kansas and New Mexico. Including Murray State and UC Santa Barbara, Cal played seven schools that earned at least a share of their conference championships.
The Bears were picked to win the Pac-10 for just the second time (also 1994 when future NBA first-round picks Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray were on the roster), and Cal came through with the league title - a first for the Bears since Pete Newell's squads won the last of four straight conference championships in 1960. In the process, current head coach Mike Montgomery became the first Cal coach - and just the fourth non-UCLA Pac-10 coach - to enjoy back-to-back 20-win seasons in the first two years overseeing the program (Cal was 22-11 in 2008-09). Montgomery won his fifth Pac-10 title this year, including four at Stanford, and recorded his 19th 20-win season overall.
The 2009-10 Bears are built around a pair of two-time first-team All-Pac-10 selections in senior guards Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher, as well as two All-Pac-10 second team picks, Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin. Randle, the fifth player in school history to earn Pac-10 Player of the Year honors, is among the conference's best in a number of categories: scoring (4th, 18.7 ppg), assists (3rd, 4.4 apg), free throw shooting (1st, 93.5%) and threepointers (2nd, 2.7 per game). He ranks No. 1 on Cal's all-time scoring list with 1,802 points, is only the third Bear to notch at least 500 career assists and is the best free throw shooter ever at the school (88.1%).
Christopher rates in the Top 10 on several Cal career lists, as well, including points (4th, 1,681), field goals made (4th, 631), three-point field goals made (4th, 161) and free throw percentage (6th, 81.6). In addition, he has set the school record for games played at 132, having seen action in every contest while a Bear. Robertson, a three-year starter for the Bears, has totaled more than 1,200 points, giving Cal three 1,000-point scorers for just the second time ever.
Robertson leads the Pac-10 in threepoint accuracy this season and is contributing 14.1 ppg with a high of 27 at Arizona.
Boykin has produced seven doubledoubles on the year, giving him 13 for his career, and recorded a career-high 25 points at Arizona State in January. The team leader on the glass all season, Boykin enters the tournament with 6.7 rpg. His season field goal percentage of 60.0 ranks third in the conference, and his career field goal percentage of 55.3 percent is the fourth best in school history. Boykin earned Pac-10 Player of the Week honors on March 1 after collecting his sixth double-double against Arizona (20 points, 10 rebounds).
Shooting the long ball has been one of Cal's strength this season, and the Bears have two of the top career three-point shooters in school history on the roster - Robertson and Randle. Robertson owns Cal's best career three-point percentage at 43.7 percent. With his size, Robertson is a versatile player who is also capable of playing the four to help at the front court. Randle has made the most treys in school history (248) and the top two single-season totals, too (82 in 2009 and 88 this year).
Another strong suit for the Bears is free throw shooting. Once again, Randle has paced the Bears in that aspect. Randle's single-season percentage of 93.5 is the best in school history and second-best in the Pac-10 record book. Christopher has been strong at the charity stripe, posting the second-best percentage on the team at 86.0.
The player who provides the biggest spark coming off the bench is sophomore guard Jorge Gutierrez, who seems to raise the intensity level whenever he's on the court. Despite playing primarily as a reserve, he was named to the Pac-10 All-Defensive team. In addition, Gutierrez has been one of Cal's most clutch shooters. In the win at Arizona State, he only made one basket out of five attempts, but it was a big shot for the Bears. After the Sun Devils cut Cal's lead from 16 down to one, Gutierrez nailed a three-pointer in the corner with 2:57 left to give the Bears a four-point lead and silence the ASU rally.
Another strong contributor has been sophomore forward Omondi Amoke, who earned a spot in the starting line-up at the end of the year. He stepped into a large role early in the season when the Bears' bench was depleted due to injury and quickly became one of Cal's more dependable rebounders, snagging a career-high 15 boards against Ohio State.
Sophomore center Max Zhang is another Bear who has become a key player in his second season. The team leader in blocks with 36, he has started five games and averaged 5.7 ppg in those five games. Perhaps his single-game biggest impact came at Oregon Feb. 20 when, in just five minutes of work, he provided eight points (4-for-5 from the free throw line), a rebound and a block. Another big man for Cal, junior center Markhuri Sanders-Frison has been bothered with a sore back for the last month, but still provides a strong presence in the middle for the Bears.
Cal's success has come despite not being at full strength at any time during the season. Junior Harper Kamp, expected to be the Bears' starting center, was forced to redshirt as he recovers from offseason knee surgery. In addition, Gutierrez (knee, 5 games), Robertson (foot, 6 games) and Zhang (collapsed lung, 3 games) all missed significant playing time over the course of the campaign.