Cal Basketball Virtually Starts Over
Mike Montgomery is starting over in a way that he's never done in his long, successful coaching career.
Every day at practice leading up to Tuesday night's season-opener against Cal State Northridge, Montgomery directs the youngest, most inexperienced team he's ever coached.
Four starters and 84 percent of the scoring from last year's team are gone. In its place, a roster than includes seven freshmen, three sophomores and a junior that couldn't play last season with a knee injury.
"This is going to require a lot of patience on everybody's part," said Montgomery, who needs seven wins to reach No. 600 for his career. "It's just a bunch of young kids out there, working really hard to do what we are asking them to do. But there's a lot of stuff they don't know, that they've never done before."
Cal took its new team out for a test drive last weekend with a scrimmage against Saint Mary's, an experienced team that parlayed a 10-seed into a Sweet 16 berth last season. It was an eye-opener, Montgomery said, against a more mature, more experienced team.
The Bears are going to run into a lot of that.
The non-conference schedule includes home games against New Mexico, No. 7 Kansas and a No. 25 San Diego State team that has nine seniors on its roster. Cal will play in a tournament with a field that includes No. 22 Temple, Georgia and Notre Dame. Montgomery acknowledged it's probably a more ambitious schedule than it ought to be for a team this green.
"We've got our work cut out for us," the coach said.
Montgomery expects mistakes, particularly on the defensive end. And he doesn't believe he has a 20-point-a-game scorer on the roster right now.
"We might start two freshmen at the wing and we may come off the bench with two freshmen at the point and oh, guess what, we've got a couple more freshmen coming in," Montgomery said.
Jorge Gutierrez is the Bears' lone returning starter and now he is a converted point guard. Gutierrez will run the point for Cal in the early part of the season, at least until sophomore Brandon Smith can prove that he's ready for the job. Gutierrez said he wants to prove to himself that he can do it as much as he'd like to prove it to Montgomery. Gutierrez has been a defensive spark and a strong rebounder for Cal. He will have to give up some parts of that game to run the point and distribute the ball.
"We lost a lot of guys and I'm trying to be the best I can," Gutierrez said. "I'm going to more involved with everybody. I am still going to try to score, but I think it's more pass first than score."
Also back on the floor for the Bears are posts Harper Kamp, who missed last year's historic season with a knee injury and Markhuri Sanders-Frison, whose back injury limited his time on the floor.
Kamp goes from a redshirt year straight into a big leadership role.
"I'm not exactly a new man, but it's kind of a new career for me," Kamp said. "I get another shot at this thing."
The freshmen are among the top recruiting classes in the country. Freshman guard Allen Crabbe led the Bears with 22 points in an exhibition win over Sonoma State on Wednesday night. Another freshman guard, Gary Franklin, was in the starting lineup in that game.
First-year forward Richard Solomon said it's a close-knit group and they shouldn't be underestimated, no matter how far the expectations have fallen.
Cal was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10 in the preseason media poll, a tough come-down after winning a championship. Even tougher when you consider that the Pac-10 isn't particularly well-regarded these days.
"We're going to have ups and downs with such a young team," Solomon said. "But once the freshmen get the main idea of college basketball, I think we are going to be a problem."
Montgomery said he thinks this season will be both "energizing and scary."
"We've got some talented kids, kids that can shoot the ball, and we are going to have to develop our depth," Montgomery said. "But not everybody is ready for prime time yet. As time goes on, kids will figure out what they have to do to be successful, but it's not going to happen overnight. They are not going to be polished, experienced Division I basketball players."