Struggling Cal men's basketball hopes Brandon Smith provides boost 

click to enlarge Brandon Smith is healthy enough to rejoin the Cal Bears basketball team. - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Images File Photo
  • Brandon Smith is healthy enough to rejoin the Cal Bears basketball team.

A bleak season in Berkeley received a jolt of good news this week: Brandon Smith appears healthy enough to rejoin the Cal men’s basketball team in the near future.

After a 6-0 start, the Bears’ season suddenly took a 180-degree turn in December. Smith went down with a head injury, sophomore guard Ricky Kreklow re-injured his surgically repaired right foot and the team has lost seven of its past 11 games.

A healthy Smith at point guard isn’t going to solve all of the Bears’ problems, but he will provide some much-needed depth on the perimeter. Without Smith and Kreklow, the Bears (10-7, 2-3 Pac-12 Conference) are using a thin, four-man rotation of junior Justin Cobbs, junior Allen Crabbe, freshman Tyrone Wallace and junior Jeff Powers in the backcourt.

“He’s not going to provide 25 points a game,” coach Mike Montgomery said of Smith. “The things we need are tenfold, but he would really help.”

But Montgomery said Smith must pass his concussion tests today to play against the Utah Utes on Thursday.

No underestimating the Utes: Utah (9-9, 1-5) may occupy the next-to-last position in the Pac-12 standings, but Cal isn’t taking the club lightly.

In the recent weeks, the Utes lost games to No. 6 Arizona (16-1, 4-1), UCLA (15-4, 5-1) and Arizona State (14-4, 3-2) by a combined eight points. On Saturday, they traveled to Washington and handed the Huskies (12-6, 4-1) their first conference loss of the season.

“They play really hard and they’re clicking right now,” forward David Kravish said. “Some people might see them as a weaker team, but they’ve played everybody really hard.”

Montgomery said the emergence of freshman point guard Brandon Taylor has ignited the Utes in conference play. Last week, Taylor averaged 16.0 points in two games against the Washington schools, while shooting 6-of-9 from 3-point range.

“All of a sudden they’ve given him some more time and he’s just ran with it,” he said.

Crabbe’s evolution: Despite a mediocre showing at Stanford on Saturday (14 points), Crabbe is still the conference’s top scorer, averaging 19.8 points per game. But Montgomery said the junior guard must do more for the team.

“Part of his evolution is going to have to be toughness and finding ways to break through,” he said.

At times, Crabbe disappears when opposing defense key in on him. Montgomery said he needs to learn how to set up defenders, react to how they’re playing him and create contact to get to the free-throw line.

“[Current Warriors guard] Klay Thompson was in a similar situation at Washington State,” he said. “By his junior year, people figured out, ‘You can’t let Klay Thompson catch the ball.’ But he still found ways to score.”

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Paul Gackle

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