Walcoff: Cal, St. Mary's hoping to beat the odds 

St. Mary’s and Cal both traveled across the country hoping to shake the perception that the best in the West aren’t good enough to hang with the elite of college basketball.

No. 8 Cal has a slightly better chance of smiling after Friday night’s East Regional showdown with No. 9 Louisville in Jacksonville, Fla. Tipoff is set for 6:50 p.m. But life would have been a whole lot easier for the Bears had they beaten the University of Washington in the Pac-10 tourney title game.

Instead of playing at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Cal now has to face a Cardinals team that was 11-7 in the mighty Big East, including a pair of wins over former No. 1 Syracuse.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s trademark pressure defense comes at you in waves (Louisville goes 11 deep) holding opponents to only 70 points per game. Pitino is third among active coaches winning 74 percent of his NCAA Tournament games and is the only man ever to guide three different schools to the Final Four: Kentucky, Providence and Louisville.

This year’s Cardinals are only (5-8) away from home and their leading scorer and rebounder, 6-foot-9 sophomore Samardo Samuels (15 ppg, 7 rebounds) is not a dominant inside presence.

Look for Pac-10 Player of the Year Jerome Randle, Cal’s leading scorer (18.7 ppg) and playmaker (4.5 assists), to attack the paint and dish to fellow seniors Patrick Christopher (16 ppg) and Theo Robertson (14.1 ppg), who are good spot-up shooters.

While Mike Montgomery’s Bears have won eight of their last 10, they are 0-5 against top 50 RPI ranked teams this season. If Randle can stay under control and Cal can tighten up its often soft defense, maybe they will be able to celebrate Friday’s 50th anniversary of the school’s only national championship in style.

St. Mary’s takes a shot

The No. 10-seed Gaels may have emerged from the shadows of perennial West Coast Conference power Gonzaga by beating the Bulldogs in the conference tournament championship game, but their south regional showdown with the University of Richmond, at noon today in Providence, R.I., is a daunting challenge.

The No. 7 Spiders (26-8) have knocked off three nationally ranked teams thanks in large part to a smothering defense that has limited opponents to an average of just 62 points per game. No surprise that Richmond coach Chris Mooney is a former Princeton player who learned from one of the best, Pete Carril.

Richmond’s celebrated “Fire and Ice” backcourt of 6-foot junior Kevin Anderson, the Atlantic-10 Player of the Year (18 ppg), and 6-foot-4 senior David Gonzalvez (14.5 ppg) will likely make life miserable for St. Mary’s sharpshooting junior guard Mickey McConnell. Nothing hurts a great 3-point shooter more than being run ragged on the defensive end of the floor.

St. Mary’s best hope is to pound the ball inside to Omar Samhan, who led the WCC in scoring (20.9 points), rebounding (11) and blocked shots (2.9).

Samhan should be able to handle Richmond’s 6-foot-9 center Dan Geriot, but 6-foot-10 forward Justin Harper is far more athletic and dangerous around the basket. Although the Gaels are 12-3 away from Moraga this season, they have only one NCAA Tourney win in school history, and that was in 1959.

I’m afraid both Cal and St. Mary’s will be hearing the three most feared words of March Madness: One and done.

KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news and is also the co-host of “Raiders Gameday” and “Recap” talk shows on KSFO (560 AM). He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.

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Rich Walcoff

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