Mike Montgomery is the best Bay Area college basketball coach since Pete Newell, and he may be doing his best job ever with this year’s Cal Bears.
Montgomery lost almost everybody from last year’s Pac-10 Conference champion team, and he suffered further hits when Max Zhang decided to stay in China and freshman guard Gary Franklin left in early January.
The Bears were picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10, but they finished the regular season tied for fourth and will play the team they’re tied with, the USC Trojans, in the first round of the Pac-10 Tournament Thursday.
Montgomery’s superiority as a coach has never been more obvious than in the Bears’ last game, a 74-55 win over Stanford at Haas Pavilion. The Bears came out with a tenacious man-to-man defense reminiscent of Newell’s championship teams and the Cardinal players just seemed to unravel. Except for a 10-0 run ending the first half and starting the second that brought them within eight points, they were never really in the game.
Former Duke great and current Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins has brought in talented players, but they don’t play smart.
Example No. 1 from the second half of Saturday’s game: Stanford had a five-on-one fast break when Jeremy Green pulled up to take a 3-pointer instead of passing it inside for an easy bucket. Perhaps his decision to go for the 3-pointer made some sense because Stanford was trailing by double digits, but one of the players should have hung back in a defensive role. Instead, Green missed the shot, Cal got the rebound and Brandon Smith took the outlet pass for an uncontested layup at the other end.
Montgomery’s players almost never make such fundamental mistakes, one reason for his success.
Another one: He doesn’t criticize shot selection, so players aren’t looking over their shoulders, as they were so often when Ben Braun was the coach. In an earlier game, freshman guard Alan Crabbe missed his first nine 3-pointers, but hit on a crucial one in the final minute of play.
Montgomery adjusts his style to the type of team he has. His preference has been to have quality big men so he can pound the ball inside, but he hasn’t had that kind of team at Cal, so he’s run a more diversified offense.
Similarly, there were times at Stanford when he had great individual scorers such as Todd Lichti and Casey Jacobsen, so the offense revolved around them. “I’ve told the players, this is not an equal opportunity offense,” he told me once.
Crabbe is the closest he has to that kind of player on this year’s Cal team, but because he’s only a freshman, the offense does not revolve around him. He’s important — he was named Freshman of the Year in the Pac-10 on Monday — but Jorge Gutierrez, Harper Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison, the only senior on the team, have all made big scoring contributions. Gutierrez is the team’s MVP for his defense and clutch baskets.
The Bears probably have to win at least two games in the Pac-10 Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament, but whether they do that or wind up in the NIT, it’s been a great ride, and you can thank Mike Montgomery for that.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.