By Jonathan Okanes
Cal Bear Blog
BERKELEY – Welcome to the postseason, where you get to watch two teams for the price of one.
Cal’s men’s basketball team opened the National Invitational Tournament on Wednesday night with a thorough 77-64 victory over Utah Valley at Haas Pavilion. And while the NIT gives the 2013-14 team a chance to continue playing, it also gives fans a glimpse of the 2014-15 team.
Indeed, several of the Bears’ younger players played integral roles in Wednesday’s victory. Freshman Jabari Bird started for the first time since Dec. 22 and had 11 points and three assists in 24 minutes. Freshman Jordan Mathews had 13 points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes. Freshman Sam Singer dished out three assists in 15 minutes at point guard.
“You can look at it as two different things – a reward for the older guys for this year and the start of next year,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “You’re getting younger players an opportunity to play, getting them some excitement. The young guys have been excited all year long. They’ve stayed enthusiastic about things. You can see them make mistakes, but they are trying to do the right thing. This will just help them long-term.”
The Bears (20-13) advanced to the second round of the NIT for the seventh time in eight all-time trips. Cal, the second seed in its region, will host third-seeded Arkansas on Monday night at 8 p.m. The Bears beat the Razorbacks 85-77 at the Maui Invitational in November.
The win also gave Montgomery his fifth 20-win season in six years as Cal’s coach.
“Arkansas is a good team,” said Kravish, who also tied a career-high with five blocks. “It will be interesting to see how far each team has come, given we played them so early in the season and this is the last tournament of the year.”
The Bears were forced to play without starting forward and leading rebounder Richard Solomon, who was sidelined with a concussion. That allowed Bird to get the starting nod and moved junior Ricky Kreklow into Solomon’s spot. Senior Jeff Powers also saw time at that position and responded with 10 points and three assists in 21 minutes. It was the second-most minutes Powers has played all season and most since logging 22 minutes at Stanford in the Bears’ Pac-12 opener back on Jan. 2.
“Jeff has stayed pretty attentive. He was hoping for another opportunity and it came,” Montgomery said. “He did a really nice job. Jeff can shoot the ball, there’s no question about it.”
Not only did several players contribute, the Bears shared the ball better than they have in recent games. Cal shot 53 percent from the floor and came up with 20 assists.
“Today we played really well,” Kravish said. “We moved the ball and were loose. We had fun out there. That was the key to our success – everyone playing hard and playing together.”
Arkansas got through to the second round by defeating Indiana State, 91-71, on Tuesday. The Razorbacks enter Monday’s game with a record of 22-11.
“That’s a pretty good deal to get to play a team like Arkansas on your home court in mid-March,” Montgomery said. “We should be excited about that. I’m sure they’ll be fired up and ready to go. That should be a challenging game for us.”