It didn’t take long for California to face a big challenge in its schedule. Syracuse, meanwhile, is returning to familiar and comfortable grounds.
The 13th-ranked Golden Bears visit Madison Square Garden to take on the Orange for the first time in the 2K Sports Classic on Thursday night.
California (2-0) is off to another fast start. It’s gone 19-3 in November over the previous four seasons and having begun 2009-10 picked to win the Pac-10, that success was expected to continue this month.
After a five-point victory in their season opener against Murray State on Nov. 9, the Golden Bears had a much easier time against Detroit two nights later. California led by eight at the break and pulled away in the second half, shooting 54.8 percent in the 95-61 victory.
Now the Bears will face some tough tests as they look to remain ranked. They’ll face either No. 6 North Carolina or No. 15 Ohio State on Friday, but first must contend with a Syracuse team that has been tough defensively in its first two games and has enjoyed their visits to New York City under coach Jim Boeheim.
“It’s early in the season, but I don’t know if we played anybody of this quality in back-to-back games in the preseason last year,” California coach Mike Montgomery said. “There’s a lot of real pluses with this game. I think for us, the ability to compete with these people 3,000 miles from home is going to be important.”
With such tough competition, Montgomery will look to his more experienced players to step up. Jerome Randle has averaged 20.0 points in the first two games while Theo Robertson is averaging 18.0. The two seniors, who each scored 22 points against Detroit, helped lead Cal to a 22-win season in 2008-09.
Also important is getting off to a quicker start. The Bears shot 40.0 percent in the first halves against Murray State and Detroit.
“We kind of want to be a little more amped up than calm and on our heels,” said senior guard Patrick Christopher, averaging a career-high 15.5 points. “We want to be fired up.”
Getting off to a fast start might be difficult against Syracuse (2-0), though. The Orange have allowed their first two opponents to average only 26 points in the first half while shooting 32.7 percent.
After Boeheim got his 800th career victory in a 32-point win over Albany earlier this month, Syracuse cruised again with a 100-60 victory over Robert Morris on Nov. 11.
Andy Rautins hit seven of the Orange’s 13 3s and finished with 22 points as the club shot 58.3 percent from the floor. Arinze Onuaku, the top returning scorer from last season’s 28-win team, scored 14 in 19 minutes.
The blowout victory allowed Boeheim to give his starters some extra rest. Rautins played only 20 minutes after injuring his ankle against Albany.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect that much,” Boeheim said. “I thought we would give him a few minutes and see what happened. He came out real confident.”
Under Boeheim, the Orange are 65-44 at MSG, the site of a six-overtime 127-117 win over Connecticut in the Big East tournament quarterfinals. Syracuse went on to beat West Virginia in one overtime before losing to Louisville in the finals.