Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports file photo

Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports file photo

Cal basketball eyeing another trip to NCAA Tournament

With a mixed bag of youth and experience, the Cal men’s basketball team sets out to earn its fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament in five years.

When the Bears tip off the 2013-14 season against Coppin State on Friday, they’ll send out four returning starters and 61 percent of their scoring from last year. But the team has to make due without reigning Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year Allen Crabbe while integrating five true freshmen into the mix.

“I don’t know if I’ve had this many new players before,” coach Mike Montgomery said. “What they don’t know, they need to be able to make up for with maximum effort and hard work.”

Despite the inexperience, the Bears feature one of the toughest front courts in the conference with senior Richard Solomon and junior David Kravish.

After missing a large chunk of his sophomore season because of academic ineligibility, Solomon started to hit his stride toward the end of his junior year. The 6-foot-10 forward said he spent the summer working on his post game.

“This offseason has been my offseason yet,” Solomon said. “So I’m just really excited to get back on the floor just to put that whole offseason to the test.”

Kravish, who broke the school’s block record last season (63), added roughly 15 pounds of muscle to his frame and he’s playing with more physicality.

Montgomery said the 6-foot-9 forward’s next step is to play more assertively with the basketball. “He’s kind of a reluctant hero,” he said. “He’s looking to pass it and sometimes he rebounds the ball in the paint and looks to pass out rather than realizing, ‘hey, I’m three feet, four feet, five feet from the [basket].’”

The Bears also return the conference’s active career assists leader (327) in guard Justin Cobbs and play-making swingman Ricky Kreklow, who was limited to nine games last year because of a foot injury.

The team should benefit from the experience that guard Tyrone Wallace gained last year starting 23 games as a sophomore.

“He’s gotten better at what he does,” Kravish said. “I think he’s got more confidence in getting to the hoop and even in his jumper.”

In the long run, the Bears will look to freshman Jabari Bird out of Salesian High School of Richmond to replace Crabbe’s scoring touch. But Montgomery said fans need to temper their expectations for the McDonald’s High School All-American.

“Everybody expects so much and you feel for the kid a little bit because he’s just a young pup — just got to figure it out like all the other freshman,” he said.

The Bears are also expecting minutes from their four additional freshmen: guard Sam Singer, forward Roger Moute a Bidias, 7-foot center Kameron Rooks and guard Jordan Mathews, the son of former USF coach Phil Mathews.

“There’s a lot of guys that need to learn how to play hard — how hard you have to play at this level to have a chance to win,” Montgomery said.College Sports

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