JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP)—California and Louisville are shuffling their starting lineups for their first-round matchup in the NCAA tournament.
The Golden Bears had to. The Cardinals wanted to.
Cal coach Mike Montgomery suspended starting forward Omondi Amoke indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules. Louisville coach Rick Pitino benched forward Terrence Jennings in favor of Jared Swopshire, hoping a smaller frontcourt combination will clear out the lane for leading scorer Samardo Samuels.
Both moves could be key when the eighth-seeded Bears (23-10) and ninth-seeded Cardinals (20-12) meet in the South Region on Friday at Jacksonville Veterans Arena.
“Well, just like life, things are going to be thrown at you, and the way you handle it, I think, defines you,” Cal guard Patrick Christopher said. “We can’t really worry about things that we can’t control. This is a situation that we can’t control. We have to move forward with it, work with the guys and work with our chemistry that we have. I think we’ll be fine.”
Montgomery said Amoke is “temporarily suspended” and didn’t make the cross country trip with his teammates. “That’s what it is. The kid made a mistake and we felt like we had to take action, and we did, and pretty much the end of the story.”
Cal declined to divulge what prompted Amoke’s suspension and played down his absence—little surprise since he averaged 4.8 points and 4.6 rebounds, and had more fouls (72) than baskets (58) this season.
Still, the loss leaves the Bears with less muscle and a new rotation against Louisville. That could mean a big game for Samuels, one of the Big East’s best big men. The 6-foot-9 Jamaican leads the team with 15.3 points and 7.0 rebounds, and had five double-doubles.
“We really need to pound it into Samardo and let him get going early for us,” said guard Jerry Smith, who will return to the starting lineup after missing the Big East tournament with a thumb injury. “That’s going to be the main factor.”
The 6-10 Jennings had started 10 of the last 13 games alongside Samuels. But Pitino believes the 6-8 Swopshire, who started early in the season, will make it easier for Samuels down low.
“We’re going to try to open it up a little bit with Jared,” Pitino said.
Swopshire also could help more on the perimeter. Cal has three regulars shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range.
Although Theo Robertson (44 percent) and Jorge Gutierrez (42 percent) are more accurate, Pac-10 player of the year Jerome Randle might be the most dangerous.
Randle is averaging 18.7 points, has made 88 3-pointers and shown the kind of range that forces many opponents to pick him up near midcourt.
“If I see an opening, if I feel like that’s sagging off, I’m pretty sure I can hit from there if I’m really on top of my game,” he said. “One thing I know is they’re not going to give me a lot of open shots anyway, so I have to figure out another way to get my teammates involved or score with the basketball.”
Guard play could be huge for both teams.
The Bears start three senior guards in Christopher, Randle and Robertson. The trio helped Cal win its first Pac-10 championship in 50 years and reach the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year.
Cal lost to Maryland in the opening round last season, and those seniors don’t want to end their careers like they did last year.
“Last year, we came in not really knowing what to expect coming here to compete and play basketball,” Christopher said. “But this year, we have another year under our belt … so taking that into account I think we’re pretty well prepared for something like this.”
The Cardinals feel the same way. The backcourt duo of Smith and Edgar Sosa had led Louisville to the regional finals the last two years—and could have the talent to get even further this year.
“We’ve been to two straight Elite Eights, coming off a Big East championship the year before, so we have a lot of experience in the backcourt,” Pitino said. “This is their fourth NCAA tournament appearance, our backcourt. So I think they know what it’s all about.”