Strictly speaking, today’s games are not a double-header; they will in fact overlap, as the men tip off in Columbus, Ohio at 7 PM ET (4 PM PT), while the women will get going at Stanford just an hour later, 5 PM PT (8 PM ET). For the Cal basketball fan, it promises to be a channel-flipping feast, with the men’s NIT game airing on ESPN while the women’s NCAA game will be part of ESPN2’s "whiparound" tournament coverage. So, with that in mind, I’ve worked up a short (and slightly overlapping) preview for tonight’s hoops madness.
First up: the men, who will get going before I get off work tonight. Ohio State isn’t the same team that made it to the national title game last year, as both Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr. left school early and were top-5 draft picks. Still, the team that was left was pretty good in a so-so Big 10, finishing 5th at 10-8. Though they were not invited back to the Big Dance this year, in part because they lost 7 of their last 11, including at moribund Michigan and a Big 10 tournament quarterfinal loss to Michigan State, they did enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the NIT. They’ve definitely gone toe-to-toe with some heavyweights this year, falling by 10 to North Carolina and by only 5 at Tennessee. However, they also got pasted by 19 at Butler and by 23 at home to Texas A&M.
The Buckeye’s best players are senior point guard Jamar Butler and freshman seven-footer Kosta Koufos. Given Cal’s strength inside, I’m more worried about Butler. Koufos can be quieted, as he’s been held to 4 points (North Carolina and Michigan State), 6 points (Iowa), 7 points (Iowa) and 8 points (Illinois and Coppin State(!)), and hasn’t picked up more than 6 boards in his last 7 games. Butler, however, will probably take advantage of our weak perimeter defense to both pour in some points (averaging almost 15 points per game) and help his teammates out (averaging over 6 assists per game, and his assist/turnover ratio is 2.26). Oh, and don’t put him on the line; he’s only missed 5 free throws all season. Butler will hurt us, that’s for sure. Cal can only hope to contain him, not shut him down completely.
Then, the Cal women will face off against George Washington, with a trip to the Sweet 16 in Greensboro, North Carolina on the line. Joanne Boyle should know all about George Washington from her days in the Atlantic 10 as the coach at Richmond, which should help some. GW is no stranger to success, winning 20 games for the 9th straight season, including a Sweet 16 appearance last year, so I imagine Boyle will be wary of the Colonials’ tricks.
At this point in my preview, I think I’ll just ‘borrow liberally from ESPN:
The team is best known for coach Joe McKeown’s Blizzard defense. As the story goes, McKeown — who became the 34th Division I women’s coach to reach the 500-career victory plateau in early February — promised his players at New Mexico State (1986-89) dessert at Dairy Queen as a reward for good defense. Not just any defense, mind you, but an aggressive, trapping matchup zone that he brought with him to GW and that harassed foes into 18.7 turnovers per game this past regular season. As ESPN.com’s Graham Hays wrote in January, the Blizzard "turns offensive sets into shot-clock triage" and results in forced shots and "rhythm-breaking scrambles." Opponents shot just 37.1 percent from the field and averaged only 56.5 ppg through the regular season.
Given the Bears’ erratic guard play this year, such an aggressive defense could be a concern. In their 6 losses this year, Cal has turned the ball over 21, 16, 11, 14, 14 and 16 times. No matter how good your post players are, they can’t score if you can’t get them the ball.
Also of concern for the Bears is the absence of backup center Rama N’diaye, who hurt her knee in the victory over San Diego on Saturday. Given the Bears’ lack of depth, it’s hardly an injury they can afford right now, and the hope is that it’s not a bad one.
Still, this looks to be a tough matchup for the Bears, and if they move on to the next round, they’ll have earned it. Still, according to Shantrell Sneed’s blog, the players sound confident, which is what you like to hear:
We know that we need to take care of the ball against their "blizzard defense." I feel like if we just stay composed and especially if Rama [N’diaye] is out, if everyone does a little bit more, whatever their role may be, I think we’ll be ok.
So, big day ahead for Cal basketball. Can the men keep their season going? For some reason, they seem to play better on the road this year, which is why I’m more hopeful than perhaps I have a right to be. What about the women? Can they handle a pressure defense with composure and avoid turning the ball over? Do they have what it takes to reach the first Sweet 16 in program history? Yeah, I think they do. Go Bears!