A Cal basketball season that comes with more expectations and promise than any this decade opens tonight, not with a glamorous trip to Madison Square Garden but against an opponent with a modest profile and solid resume.
"We've got a lot of land mines on our schedule. It's unlikely we'll make it through all of them," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "I'm not talking about the North Carolinas and Kansas. I'm talking about the other guys."
He was talking about a visit by Murray State tonight, then Detroit on Wednesday, in the opening games of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament that will take the 13th-ranked Golden Bears to New York City a week from now. Tipoff tonight is at 8 at Haas Pavilion.
Before facing Syracuse at the Garden on Nov. 19, then possibly defending national champion North Carolina the next night, the Bears will be challenged by the Racers, who return four starters from a 19-victory team picked as a co-favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference.
Cal, the Pac-10 favorite with four starters of its own back from a 22-11 squad, cannot afford to take the Racers lightly.
"They're one of those dangerous teams that people don't know about out here," Montgomery said. "They've got really good athletes, they really know how to play and they're very confident. So it's a little bit scary."
"If you look ahead, you're just setting yourself up for an upset," senior point guard Jerome Randle said. "We have to get past these two games, then worry about Syracuse."
The trip to New York looms as a big opportunity for Cal. The potential benefits can extend from perception and national rankings to recruiting and NCAA Tournament seeding.
"If you can hang with people who are really quality programs, it really helps you, it makes you one of them," Montgomery said. "Looking like you belong is important."
"It's good for us, with all this hype around us, to see where we are," senior guard Patrick Christopher added.
Murray State, coached by one-time Cal aide Billy Kennedy, won't be easy. Led by senior Danero Thomas, a preseason All-OVC pick and the leader of a three-guard alignment, the Racers attack off the dribble more than they shoot the 3-pointer.
"They're real good off the point of attack, which is a concern for us," Montgomery said.
And the Racers won't be intimidated after trailing by just four points in the final 3 minutes at Missouri last season in an eventual 75-64 loss. Cal also visited Missouri last year and absorbed a 93-66 defeat, their worst of the season.
"It's the one thing we have, guys who have experience in those kind of games," Kennedy said. "Whether or not we can play within ourselves and handle the environment and experience of Cal, that's the concern."
The Bears will play tonight without junior power forward Harper Kamp, who continues to rehab his surgically repaired knee. Sophomore guard Jorge Gutierrez is expected to play after twisting his ankle Thursday in the Bears' exhibition win over Chico State.
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