"We're going on tour, men! Want to come along?" bellowed California head coach Mike Montgomery late Tuesday morning.
Monty led off his teleconference with a bang, already clearly in midseason form as he briefed the local media on his team's upcoming trip to Scandinavia, kicking off this weekend.
Over 10 days, Montgomery will take his Bears on a five-game, three-city swing which will give his Bears plenty of time to bond, as well as to integrate newcomers David Kravish, Christian Behrens and now-eligible guard Justin Cobbs, who sat out last season after transferring from Minnesota.
"We're playing five teams in 10 days, so we'll have some off time. Typically, on these tours, even if you have a game on a certain day, you'll, if you're going to a certain place, you'll find something in the morning, you'll sightsee, you'll go to whatever that town has," Montgomery said. "It's not like you lay in bed all day and have a pregame meal and all that kind of thing. It's about travel and it's about meeting other people, seeing other cultures, experiencing other places, so just to walk around town during the day and do other things. We have a meal with one of the teams after one of the games, I think we'll do a couple clinics in a couple of the places. We're on a cruise ship -- I couldn't tell you where -- from one place to another one night. That'll be kind of fun for the guys. There's a lot of stuff that we'll be doing."
Click Here to view this Link.One pair of players that has already done plenty of bonding as freshman roommates -- Alex RossiClick Here to view this Link. and Emerson MurrayClick Here to view this Link. -- will be seeing their first action in quite some time. Rossi had season-ending hernia surgery several months back, and Murray had a metal plate in his foot removed, an artifact from a broken foot that caused him to miss much of his final prep season.
"I would say that Emerson and Alex are in the process of getting back to 100 percent," Montgomery said. "They're still not there yet. They've had some good days and some bad days. We went six days in a week last week, which was tough on them, physically, but they made it through. I think they've made progress, but they're not anywhere close to 100 percent."
Sources from around the program have said that Rossi is chomping at the bit to get back on the floor, and has shown flashes of his deadly outside shot, a dimension which the Bears missed last season.
Also on the mend is Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Allen Crabbe, who tried out for the Under-19 US National Team along with classmate Richard Solomon. During that sojourn, Crabbe suffered a nasty blow to the face which broke his nose in two places, putting a damper on what was to be a productive offseason.
"Allen's fine. He just had a broken nose," Montgomery said. "There was no guarantee that he had a concussion. I don't think that was ever fully determined. He definitely had a broken nose. It was broken in two places and he had to have surgery, so he was out for a period of time, but he was cleared to go at the end of last month, so he's been in all of our practice sessions."
Despite the injury, the dynamic wing hasn't even let a protective plastic mask slow him down. He has made some significant strides this offseason, and Montgomery expects to see the young shooter up his game even more as Cal gets its first competitive licks in since the end of its NIT run in March
"I expect him to be more aggressive," Montgomery said. "I expect him to be more physical, more confident in all the things that he can do. He was the Freshman of the Year last year, and I think he projected himself to be one of the better players in the conference. He's going to do that by being more aggressive and more confident in the things that he can do."
The trip overseas is a rare luxury. College programs are allowed only one such trip every four years, and they don't come free. For all the help a young team like the Bears can get from such a trip, it is far from an inexpensive proposition, especially for a public institution, and particularly during such trying financial times.
"We raised about 70 percent of the money through a good fundraising campaign with some very loyal boosters, people willing to help out," Montgomery said. "We actually had some money left over from a couple projects that we had undertaken, our office projects for example, so there was some money left over from there for what they would call a discretionary fund, so it was not that hard, but it was mainly through people stepping up and helping us out."
History shows though, that the investment is a sound one. A report by The Sporting News found that a random sampling of 27 teams that took their trips between 2006 and 2010 won an average of two additional games the following season.
"Well, I think one of the things is that you get 10 practices out of the deal, so we've had a chance -- we've got a couple walk-ons, we've got a couple new freshmen that are here -- we've had a chance to get Alex and Emerson back, Alex not having played at all last year, so you get a little bit of a sense of where you are at this point, see some of the improvement in some of the guys," Montgomery said. "It gives them a focal point as far as lifting, so maybe there's a little more intensity. We've had pretty good practice sessions. We've been able to get some things in and look at kids and see where we are and it's just a good gauge for what we have to do when we start in the fall."
How big a difference could five exhibition games and 10 practices make? Teams that took trips between 2006 and 2009 won an average of 22 games, again, two more than in the preceding season. Teams that traveled last summer averaged 23.3 wins in the 2010-11 season, up from 21.1 in 2009-10.
Last season, teams that made the NCAA Tournament won an average of 23.9 games during the regular season and conference tournaments. A total of seven teams made the Big Dance with 19 or fewer wins. The Bears won 17 before reaching the second round of the NIT. If that two-game increase trend holds true, those two wins -- be they due to more experience, better chemistry or both -- could very well mean that this trip may indeed be the difference in the Bears making it to March Madness. Increasing depth will be another line on the to-do list, as seven players averaged at least 15.7 minutes per game last season, with all but one player -- Robert Thurman -- averaging at least 7.4 minutes on the floor.
"From a basketball standpoint, there are five games there, we're going to play a lot of players, move starting lineups around, move people to different positions, you know, we're going to try and get some guys some experience," Montgomery said. We're not going to run anybody into the ground or anything like that. Then, the other aspect of it is, you are in a foreign country, you are with your teammates, it's a new experience, you're with each other 24/7, so there is a certain amount of guys getting to know each other better, getting out of their comfort zone, which is their select group of friends. There is a certain amount of things that happen in that way as well."
The last time Cal headed overseas, the Bears improved from a 13-16 finish in the 2004-05 season to 20-11 in 2005-06, reaching the NCAA Tournament after a trip to Italy. This year's edition will allow for some of the newer players on the roster to gel with the veterans. Newcomers Kravish and Behrens will join walk-ons Raffi Challan and Robert Filley, as well as Cobbs, in getting their first game experience in blue and gold.
"I really haven't looked at [the competition] that closely. I do know that we play two national teams, the Danish national team and the Norwegian national team, so it should be pretty good," Montgomery said. "They've got good players, so I think those will be good contests. Maybe we'll point more towards those national teams, but as I say, the objective is to get people some time. I don't want to make it about whether we go 5-0 or 0-5. That's not really a major consequence if we can get some guys some experience and getting other people some playing time that they maybe haven't had in the past."
So far, in practice, Montgomery has been impressed with the heady play of Kravish, even though he could stand to gain some weight and strength.
"David Kravish is a very smart player. He's a little under-sized. He's 6-9 ½ and weighs maybe 210 right now, soaking wet, but he knows how to play," Montgomery said. "He's a very smart player, and has fit in very well. I'm anxious just to see what he can do. Actually, Robert, Big Robert Thurman, has really improved, and if we can get him a little game experience, I think that at 260, 6-10, he's strong, he's making some nice moves inside, so we're hoping that Robert will be ready to help us some."
Behrens, who fell off many recruiting boards when he blew out his ACL just 10 games into his senior season, is having a tougher time picking up the offense, but, Montgomery says, that's one of the benefits of those 10 extra practices and the trip itself.
"Well, he's a little behind, just in terms of learning the offense. It's all new to him, coming off an ACL," Montgomery said. "He was not in a great high school program that won many games, so a lot of the stuff we're trying to do from an execution standpoint, he gets a little bit lost. We've kind of put him in a couple different positions, because we're not sure whether he's a four or a three, so that's confused him a little bit even more, but it'll just take him time just to get stronger coming off that ACL and adjust to this level. That's what this trip's for."
Two players who know their roles perhaps better than any other are returning first-team All-Pac-10 guard Jorge Gutierrez and second-team All-Pac-10 power forward Harper Kamp.
Gutierrez -- who shouldered much of the scoring load last season after the departure of Jerome Randle, Theo Robertson, Patrick Christopher and Jamal Boykin -- emerged as a legitimate scoring threat last season, after having already gained a well-earned reputation as a tenacious defender. He led the Bears with 14.6 points per game and swiped a team-high 54 steals while shooting 41.1 percent from the field and 33 percent from three-point range.
Kamp was just behind Gutierrez in the scoring department, netting 14.2 points per game, and ranked second on the team in rebounding with 5.6 boards per game. Kamp was the second-best shooter among regulars -- posting a 52.8 shooting percentage from the field -- and was nearly automatic from the free-throw line, sinking 81.6 percent of his shots from the charity stripe.
"Jorge creates his own excitement. We expect Allen Crabbe to be better, we're hoping that Harper's better, we certainly have seen that Richard Solomon is better," Montgomery said. "We've got the addition of Cobbs to the lineup, so we're hoping everybody's improved, and that includes Jorge is well. He went down and played with the Mexican national team, was going to go to the World University Games but decided to stay with us. We did we go to him out of necessity last year I would think, in certain situations, but he's got to be one of our team leaders. He's a first-team all-conference player, and we expect him to carry a fair share of the load, but we were hoping that we don't have to have anybody play the kinds of minutes they did last year."
Having Gutierrez back in Berkeley helped to spur on the offseason work ethic of the rest of the team, as the team came in to the latest round of practices in superior shape.
"We had them in summer school, so a couple of the guys were in the first session, and we had everybody in the second session over the summer, so we've been able to run and condition and that kind of stuff. That's been great," Montgomery said. "They have great work ethic in the weight room, so they're all in decent shape. Right now, eight hours is what you have, basically, for conditioning and so forth, but like I said, these practice sessions have helped. I think we're in pretty good shape. I think we have a pretty good starting point here."
Gutierrez and Brandon Smith spent much of the first half of last season splitting point guard duties, but with the addition of the dynamic and physical Cobbs, the lineup could get a bit more complicated. The additional practice time and the five games overseas will go a long way towards clearing that particular thicket.
"Obviously, Justin Cobbs hasn't played in game situations, so that will allow us to play Cobbs at the two some with Brandon, maybe move Jorge to the three some, so we'll have combinations of people," Montgomery said. "So, those guys in particular I think are the guys that we'll focus on right now to pick the offense up, and they should be able to step in and maybe play minutes right away."
Down low, sophomore forward Solomon has continued to advance in his development. Even during last season, Solomon made significant progress, and during practice, Montgomery is perhaps harder on him than he is on any other player, because of the great potential he sees in the now-6-foot-10, 220-pounder. Solomon has fed off of that, and, before long, could wind up as one of the more dominant big men in the conference.
"Well, he's a lot more confident. He's made more jump hooks and baskets around the basket than he made probably all of last year, so far," Montgomery said. "He's physically stronger, he's able to run better, I think he's a lot more confident, but he still has a little lack of experience. But, when he gets in the right spot and we get him the ball, he's done some nice things. We're pretty pleased with Richard. He just needs experience now, with how to do game-type things, end-of-game, how to use his head, the thinking part of the game."
The Bears will be without two players on the trip in sophomore transfer Ricky Kreklow -- who is ineligible after coming over from Missouri -- and junior forward Bak Bak.
Bak returned to his native Sudan this summer, but was caught up a bit of a visa snafu as the country split into two new nations and didn't return to the United States until this week.
"Bak is standing outside of my office as we speak," Montgomery said on Tuesday. "He arrived yesterday afternoon. He will not be going on the tour with us, but it's great to get him back in the United States. We were concerned."
Both the team and the coaching staff were not so much worried about whether they would get Bak back, but rather that he was safe from harm. Given the unstable nature of the region, getting Bak back in playing shape was the least of the program's worries. Trying to get him game-ready in a matter of days now will play second-fiddle to making sure he can get his life sorted out back in the States. In the end, the decision not to bring him along was an easy one.
"It's two things: One, he hasn't worked out, he's missed eight practices, he needs to earn some money and he just needs to get settled, so it's the fact that he hasn't practiced with us, and, two, who knows if he'd still have passport issues?" Montgomery said. "We don't want to risk that. It just felt like he needed to get a chance to get situated, get back in the weight room, catch up with where we are, have a chance to make some money and get ahead of that a little bit.
"Simplified, it's nothing that there really needs to be a big deal about. It's just that we weren't sure if he was going to be back at all, with all the problems he had with his passport. We're just going to let him lift weights and get back in shape here and earn some money."
Cal will leave for Europe at the end of this week, kicking off the trip with contests against the Solna Vikings on Aug. 14 and Uppsala on Aug. 15, both in Stockholm. The Bears will then bus to Oslo to play the Norwegian national team on Aug. 17 before departing to face the Danish national team in a pair of games in Copenhagen on Aug. 20 and 21.