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Syracuse’s challenge: tame Bears

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After dominating a team that was physically inferior and lacking Syracuse’s abundance of talent, the fourth-seeded Orange now meet a team very similar to them as they seek a spot in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 tonight in San Jose, Calif.

Routing Montana 81-34 on Thursday at HP Pavilion was simply a warm-up for what most expect to be a much tougher test in No. 12 California.

Like SU, the Golden Bears have abundant length in the frontcourt, athletic guards who can shoot, and a tendency to play mainly zone defense.

“I hadn’t seen them play before Thursday, but I’m aware of their talent and their good players,” said SU’s Brandon Triche on Friday when asked about the local favorites from just 45 minutes away. “From what we saw, they like to do a lot of the same things we do so it should be a very competitive game.”

The Orange did just about everything right in blowing away Montana. They shot superbly (52 percent), defended magnificently (Montana shot 20 percent) and were just too big and physical for the Grizzlies on both ends.

California’s roster won’t be intimidated like Montana appeared to be. The Bears possess seven players that stand 6-foot-9 or better, their top scorer is 6-6 wing player Allen Crabbe and starting point guard Justin Cobbs stands 6-3.

“Their guards are really good,” said SU coach Jim Boeheim. “Crabbe is a tremendous shooter with great range. And Cobbs made some big plays down the stretch last night.”

Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, “can stretch the zone because he can just shoot over it,” said SU’s James Southerland. “So we’ve got to make sure we tag him on every possession.”

California coach Mike Montgomery, who has become good friends with Boeheim over the last few years, said SU’s 2-3 zone is not just good, it’s really active. “They are so big and long. I compare it to the 1979 Michigan State team with Greg Kelser and Magic Johnson,” he said. “It’s actually a 2-2-1 in the halfcourt, with the forwards up high. And they react to the ball as one.”

California went 5-for-11 from long range versus UNLV.

Crabbe said contending with the SU zone will be tough. “I know it’s not going to be easy to get shots,” he said. “You think you’re going to get it off, and suddenly they close out on you quickly.”

Cobbs said the key to attacking the Orange zone is “trying to penetrate and get the ball to the high post. You don’t want to go to the corners because they trap so well and find shooters like Allen.”

SU’s offense was relentless against Montana, moving the ball well and getting easy, open shots. It was a carryover of their good offensive movement from the Big East Tournament.

“We’re just in sync a lot better than we were before the Big East,” Southerland said. “The team has really come together, and now we’re making the extra pass to get a better shot. Consequently, we’re making more.”

Montgomery said his club’s defensive effort against UNLV, holding the Rebels to 32 percent shooting and an 11-minute scoring drought in the second half, was due to “great communication and great movement.”

The Bears, traditionally a man-to-man club, played mainly zone “because we just felt it was the right time,” Montgomery said. “Teams that play zone don’t like to be zoned. It’s odd. Hopefully, that will work against Syracuse, but they have an awful lot of weapons.”

About Cal’s zone, Boeheim said: “It’s more of a 3-2 matchup than ours with plenty of man-to-man principles. But I’m sure we’ll see some man-to-man because that’s what Mike is known for.”

SU has come out of its shooting slump just in time for the postseason. In the last five regular-season games, the Orange was a woeful 20-for-86 (23 percent) on 3-pointers. In the five games since SU is 42-85, a resounding 49 percent.

“If we see an open shot, we’re just going for it now,” Southerland said. “Maybe we’ve had a few more pump fakes to get us open. But the key is ball movement and just shooting with a lot more confidence.”

As for the idea that the Bears are playing a home game less than an hour’s drive from their campus, Southerland said that will not bother the Orange. “We’ve won at Arkansas and Louisville, and those were their only home losses. So we’re used to the hostile environment.”

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