After watching UNLV snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the game's final second last weekend, Cal has an opportunity to redeem itself against an even higher-ranked team Saturday, the Creighton Blue Jays.
Creighton (9-1, ranked #16) has not played Cal in 25 years, and the Bears have won both previous meetings.
The Blue Jays have a formidable front line, featuring the coach's son Doug McDermott. The 6-9 junior forward is the only returning first-team All American player in the nation, and he's living up to that billing so far this season, averaging 22.7 ppg and 6.7 rebounds.
McDermott is the reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week.
Cal coach Mike Montgomery positively gushes over McDermott, "I just love McDermott. He’s a good, solid, Midwestern basketball player, a coach’s son."
Asked how it must be to coach one's own offspring, Montgomery revealed his wicked sense of humor. "Probably wouldn’t have been good for me to coach my son – it’s probably fun to coach your son when he’s a first team All American. It’s hard – if your kid’s not really good, you can have some issues – other players might think you are deferring to him, he’s getting all the shots – but when you’re as good as Doug McDermott is . . . he’s tough, hard-nosed, not a prima donna, he’ll go on the floor and get the ball."
Asked how he planned to defend McDermott (obviously, David Kravish and Richard Solomon will both have their hands full all evening), Montgomery said, "We'll see. We still have a few days to plan that. Obviously, when he's on the perimeter, it's more of an isolation thing and we can get somebody out there to help, but inside, you can't double him very much, because they have (Gregory Echinique, 10.5 ppg., 71. rpg, 1.3 bpg.) their other big man there, and you can't allow a mismatch with a guard. He's 6-9, 260, he's a man, he's a load. You just can't put a guard on him."
Creighton has faced a common opponent with Cal, and they handled Wisconsin, 84-74, in a Las Vegas-based tournament a couple of weeks ago. They have also defeated Atlantic-10 favorite St. Joseph's and the defending Mid-American Conference champion Akron Zips. Greg McDermott is 0-1 at Cal as a coach, having lost at the helm of Northern Iowa a couple of years ago, and Creighton has had problems against the Pac-12 in the past - despite their victory over the Sun Devils this year, they are 3-10 all-time against current conference members.
Doug McDermott is the nation's leading scorer since the start of last season, and he and Cal's Allen Crabbe are the two top-scoring juniors in the country. Crabbe saw McDermott up close in a basketball camp a couple of years back. "I was impressed," Crabbe said. "I didn’t know much about McDermott, other than that he was a teammate of Harrison Barnes in high school. He was scoring the ball, rebounding, he has an all-around game. I’m not worried about it – if I have to guard him, I will, if I need to help, I’ll do that."
Cal will have to take much better care of the basketball Saturday than they have in their two recent losses, as the Blue Jays are led by point guard Grant Gibbs, who led the MVC with 174 assists last year and is among the nation's best again this season.
"They shoot 53% overall," Montgomery noted, "42% as a team from behind the arc, that’s pretty good. Gibbs is third in the country, was number one in the country, in assist-to-turnover ratio."
Cal will rely on senior Brandon Smith to run the offense. Smith got himself in a bit of trouble against UNLV, twice trying to directly convert after steals and failing to score either time, losing possession of the ball and the opportunity.
Montgomery said of Smith, "I expect so much of Brandon, because he’s a smart player. I think he’s putting himself in tough situations. He doesn’t need to score. I went over to say something to him and he said 'coach, I can make a layup'. And he can, but some of those were in traffic and weren’t really layups. He’s got himself into situations that were pretty tough shots. What you’d like for anybody is to make plays, and when they fail, it stands out.
"I think sometimes he’s trying to do too much – I hold him to a higher standard because of his knowledge of the game. I’ve told him if you go in and there’s someone there, don’t be afraid to dribble on through and find an open man."
Defense will be the key to the game, as Creighton is scoring nearly 81 points per game this year.
Montgomery will basically be playing a 7-8 man rotation again, as Ricky Kreklow is improving slowly, if at all, from his foot injury. "Kreklow is not making much progress, it’s very discouraging for him," Montgomery reported.
Tip-off is late at 8 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on the Pac-12 Network.