40 minutes of slow suffocation
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SAN JOSE -- If one can measure joy and use it as a metric for future endeavors, the Oregon Ducks came out of Silicon Valley feeling happiest about its work this weekend, and its hopes for the future.

Until, that is, they get to their senses and realize all their hard work in whomping Oklahoma State and then St. Louis only gets them Louisville.

In the meantime, California gets to breathe again--and for the next eight months--after 40 minutes of slow suffocation at the hands of the Syracuse Orange.

Thus was the takeaway from the Valley of the Twelves Saturday. Oregon proved by beating St. Louis, 74-57, that it could make other teams play its way, forcing pace through transition until it defined the game with its skill and speed.

Cal, in losing 66-60 to the ‘Cuse, on the other hand, could not win the will-over-skill battle, and only got as close as it did because Syracuse missed a metric ton of free throws in the second half.

[RELATED: Cal falls to Syracuse 66-80 in Round of 32]

And head coach Jim Boeheim’s reward? Indiana (assuming they knock off Temple). There’s never a happy ending in this tournament except in April.

Oregon, as a badly underseeded 12, had the advantages of a short trip and the shoulder chip to with its quickness and purpose, and between shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 8 of 11 from behind the arc against a stern defensive team, it made surprisingly quick work of the Billikens.

“I’m really surprised by those totals,” head coach Dana Altman said, “because when they set their defense, they are really hard to beat. But we got up and down the floor quickly, and really once we did that and they couldn’t set their defense, that’s when it turned in our favor.”

Cal, as a properly seeded 12 but even closer to home, discovered the same lesson from the backhand. Turning the ball over on possessions three through nine established the Bears’ difficulty in making space for Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs, and being unable to keep Syracuse from ultra-dominating the glass and driving lanes finished the job.

Crabbe ended up 3-for-9, Cobbs 2-for-9, and since those are the Ursines’ prime radiants, their essential elimination ruined Cal’s chances before they really started.

“I thought we started the game very very tentative,” head coach Mike Montgomery said. “And we gave up 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, and that was very telling.”

More to the point, though, Syracuse’s storied zone extended to the right spots and discombobulated Cal’s offensive rhythm, to the point where its only decent shots came in close from Richard Solomon (22 and 14) and Robert Thurman (nine in 18 minutes).

In a more macro sense, Montgomery faced the obvious – that Syracuse is faster, longer, and knows how to zone teams into oblivion, while Cal doesn’t face enough zone to have mastered the principles of repelling that defense.

“We didn’t have a lot of people who were playing above their ability,” he said, acknowledging the obvious. “We didn’t have a whole bunch of people that rose to the occasion and this was a big game. You’re not going to win games like that unless you have some people able to do that.”

Not that Syracuse was masterful in all areas, mind you. The Orange missed 15 of 41 free throws, and scored only six field goals in the second half. They were one of only seven teams to shoot below 40 percent and still win, in a tournament in which 35 of the 80 teams to play so far have failed to meet that minimum standard, and they allowed Cal to dream at the end, although a dream was all it really was.

Ultimately, then, Oregon had what ailed Oklahoma State and St. Louis. Cal, though, hit the wall it should have hit, and they way it should have hit it. The Bears lost to a better team playing at near its full defensive capabilities, and if there is consolation in that, it is that they went as far as they should have.

The Ducks? They are going far enough to further churn the tournament committee’s sense of ex post facto agitation. They are playing with the casino’s money, at least for another six days. Twelve-seeds call that a good year.