A few impressions following No. 14 San Diego State’s 77-57 win over Cal on Wednesday night at Haas Pavilion:
– First of all, Cal played quite well for about 26 1/2 minutes against the best team it’s faced (so far) this season (yes, Kansas visits in two weeks). The Bears outrebounded (38-28) a team that has won the battle on the boards by an average of more than eight per game this season. They generally played well on defense in the first half. And they showed toughness by standing in against a very quick, athletic and experienced team.
– The final 13 1/2 minutes were a disaster. The Aztecs made seven straight shots during one stretch, extending a 41-40 lead to 58-44. Sophomore Kawhi Leonard, whom Mike Montgomery called “a pro,” was superb most of the night. What a beautifully soft jumper. And PG D.J. Gay chewed up the Bears in the second half, scoring all 14 of his points, including 4 for 5 from the 3-point arc.
– Cal’s transition defense was the worst we’ve seen all year. I counted eight fastbreak baskets by the Aztecs — four each off turnovers and missed Cal shots. That had Montgomery more upset than anything. “When you let the ball get thrown over the top of you for layups on the break, it just doesn’t work,” Montgomery said. “It’s basic basketball 1-A. You’ve got to protect your basket.”
– The three upperclassmen are playing great ball. Harper Kamp, Jorge Gutierrez and Markhuri Sanders-Frison combined for 45 of Cal’s 57 points and 20 of their 38 rebounds. But they needed far more help against the Aztecs. The rest of the roster combined for 12 points on 4 for 20 shooting. “We’re having a hard time coming off the bench,” Montgomery said.
– In particular, it’s a concern that Montgomery cannot afford to take Gutierrez out of the game. “We’ve had a hard time when Jorge’s been out. They had two runs when he was out,” Montgomery said. “He plays so hard he gets tired and when he’s tired he’s liable to get a foul. We need to find some guys off the bench who give us similar type play, and we don’t always get that.”
– Sanders-Frison’s health has to be regarded as a major concern. A podiatrist told him Tuesday he has plantar fasciitis in both feet. He had a career-high 12 rebounds against SDSU, but went out for about five minutes midway through the second half in excruciating pain. “The guy’s a trooper,” Montgomery said, “He’s playing with a lot of pain. He deserves to be healthy — he’s worked his butt off. We’ve got to find a way to get rid of this pain. If someone were to tell me sit him for 10 days and it goes away, a no-brainer. But like most injuries, it doesn’t work that way.”
– The freshmen have had good and bad moments through the early portion of the season, but they seemed in over their heads against competition of this level. The four of them combined for two baskets (both by Allen Crabbe) and six turnovers.
– Poor Gary Franklin is turned inside out right now. On his 20th birthday, the freshman guard shot 0 for 4 and committed three turnovers. Montgomery is trying to let him play through it, partly because Franklin will eventually be a good player and partly because he doesn’t have anyone better. But the guy looks a bit shellshocked on the floor, apparently playing with none of the confidence he had early. His shooting percentage has plummeted to 28 percent.
– The Aztecs improved to 9-0 for the first time in school history and their upcoming schedule strongly suggests they will reach 15-0 before the Mountain West Conference begins. Coach Steve Fisher was pleased with the outcome, explaining, “It was a good, important victory for us against a team that plays tough, is expertly coached, and is hard with the set plays thay they run.”
– Sunday afternoon’s game against Southern Miss is a key to how the Bears figure to wind up in the non-conference. The Golden Eagles are 5-1, the only blemish a five-point road loss to Ole Miss. Cal Poly (3-4) and Hartford (2-7) aren’t likely to offer much resistance and Kansas (8-0) may be too big a mountain to climb, so beating Southern Miss could set the table for an 8-4 non-conference record.