Catching Up With Coach, Part 2

Publisher's Note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series.
Cal head basketball coach Mike Montgomery has long borne the label of a "big man's coach." Since his days as head coach at Montana, Montgomery has always been known for producing elite low-post players. And, while some have said he has yet to make his mark on the Bears basketball program in that regard, next season may just change a few minds.
Returning for Cal will be 6-foot-9 sophomore Bak Bak, 6-foot-8 junior Harper Kamp, 6-foot-7 senior center Markhuri Sanders-Frison and the Great Brow of China, 7-foot-3 junior center Max Zhang.
"Max is, as we've said so many times, a work-in-progress," says Montgomery. "He's improved tremendously. He's gained weight, he's gained strength, he's with the Chinese national team as we speak, and hopefully, he's going to gain confidence, which will be huge for him, because if he plays with some confidence and some toughness, he'll be very, very effective."
Zhang has spent the summer trying out for the Chinese national team, which features NBA stalwarts Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian.
"They cut once, they're down to 18 and they're going to cut again. You don't want Max to spend all of his summer with that team if he's not going to get a chance," says Montgomery. "They're working out twice a day, lifting twice a day, so I think it's a positive from that regard. I haven't heard anything specific on how he's doing, but he's still hanging in there. They've made the cut to 18, and they'll make another cut to 14, and if he makes that, then that's pretty encouraging."
While the long-and-lanky Zhang tries to put on some weight during his sojourn back to the old hometown, as it were, Montgomery's other big man, Sanders-Frison, is trying to shed a few pounds. At 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, the center out of Portland, Ore., was slowed by back spasms and disc injuries last season, averaging just 14 minutes in 31 games. Part of his durability issues may have, according to Montgomery, could be linked directly to Sanders-Frison carrying too much excess weight.
"It's that, plus the fact that his core strength is not good enough," Montgomery says. "I just think that his back was asked to do too much. There was too much load. He wasn't getting help from the core strength muscles that he needed, and the back got to where the discs couldn't take it. Losing some weight, gaining some core strength will be key for him."
Much of Sanders-Frison's offseason has been dedicated to dropping that weight and firming up his core muscles.
"Markhuri is working as hard as he ever has in his life in the weight room because he's trying to get his weight down and trying to get his core strength built up, because his back is an issue for him," says Montgomery. "If we can get him to 100 percent, he's going to be a force. With Harper coming back, again, there's the unknown of an injury, but at the end of the year, he looked really healthy, healthier than any time that we've ever seen him. You add Bak and Richard Solomon into that group, you've got to be encouraged."
Bak Bak was sidelined last season due to troubles in the classroom, but, like Sanders-Frison, he too has been making progress in leaps and bounds, and will in all likelihood be eligible by the time the Bears set out to defend their first Pac-10 conference title in 50 years.
"He had a great spring. He really turned himself around academically and figured it out," says Montgomery. "He did all the things, worked very hard. We're actually kind of proud of him, because he really didn't have much of a background coming in, and so once he got himself in trouble, he didn't know how to get himself out, but he had a great spring, he's here now and he's gained probably 25 pounds since he's been here, and strength. So, we're anticipating that he'll be full-speed ahead."
Another highly-anticipated return will be that of Kamp, who was forced to redshirt during Cal's championship run last season because of lingering issues with his right knee following two major surgeries, the second of which involved doctors performing a lateral release procedure to correct a tilt in his right kneecap which caused painful grinding and damage to the cartilage.
"He's a key guy. We were really disappointed that he wasn't able to go last year, although I think everybody-himself included-breathed a huge sigh of relief when we were still able to win the conference without him, because we thought that would really make it difficult," says Montgomery. "At the end of the year, he never did play, but he was able to practice, and he was able to practice longer, he was able to practice a few days in a row. For two years, in our minds, he has been our best post player, so if he continues to make the progress, the improvement that he has (made) just in terms of the strength and health of his knee, it's going to be a real plus for us."
Joining the ranks of the Bears' big men this upcoming season will be incoming freshman Richard Solomon, the younger brother of another Haas Pavilion star, women's volleyball outside hitter Am'ra Solomon. Last season Solomon teamed with fellow future Bear Allen Crabbe to lead Los Angeles Price to the state title. With Solomon coming in, Cal looks to be far from poor in the big-man department. But, that doesn't mean that Montgomery isn't looking to the future.
"We need some help, big-wise. We project on the board, like most coaches do, our positions, out for the next four years. Who we're going to have, what year they're going to be in school, where we need help," Montgomery said last week at the AT&T Coaches Tour event at AT&T Park in San Francisco. "We looked at the big spots pretty long and hard, but the reality of it is, we've got Harper for two more years, Max for two more years, Markhuri for one. Bak did a tremendous job in the classroom this spring, really turned himself around. We have him for three more years. We have Richard Solomon for four years coming in, the 6-foot-9 kid out of LA. So, we're not destitute there, but we do, as we look down the road, we have earmarked several really highly-rated kids at the big spots. Now, we're going to be one-of-three with them. And these are really good players. The key is, now, to get them.
"We will get, possibly, two bigs next year. We do have another offer out to a kid who's not a big, just because he's a really, really good player. But, we're looking at two bigs next year, and we've got some great candidates, so that's certainly the direction that we're trying to head."
In an interview with BearTerritory on Wednesday, Montgomery expanded on what the future of his big-man recruitment may look like.
"Markhuri is the one kid that's a senior that will graduate, so we need to replace one big for sure. As we speak, I think we have an open scholarship, which gives us a second one. That, we could go a number of different ways," says Montgomery. "We would want as good a player as we can get. We could go a variety of different ways, but we need to start addressing the bigs in the next two classes, with the idea that if we're able to get a great player at any of the other positions, we would look to do that."
This recruiting cycle, Montgomery pulled in several other intriguing prospects in order to replace the graduating class of point guard Jerome Randle, guard Nikola Knezevic, guard Patrick Christopher, forward Theo Robertson and forward Jamal Boykin.
One of the youngsters could very well take the spot of Randle, pending the outcome what is sure to be a fierce competition with Jorge Gutierrez: Canadian mystery man Emerson Murray.
"Jorge, it depends on who we decide to go with at the point, whether it be Jorge, whether it be Franklin, whether it be Brandon Smith or Emerson-we've got a choice there to make," Montgomery says of the point guard battle. "It's just too early to say."
Murray, the final addition to the 2010 recruiting class, is a player that, Montgomery says, could very well be a diamond in the rough.
"That's the way we felt. We knew about him and had kind of gotten an inkling," says Montgomery. "We'd heard once before, but not knowing what (dismissed forward) Omondi (Amoke)'s status was going to be, not knowing what (transferred shooting guard) D.J. (Seeley)'s status was going to be, we had gone ahead in the fall with the players that we took, and then when we got toward the end, being really pretty short at that guard/wing type position, backcourt kind of guys, we kind of started re-looking at things, and he was available.
"We knew some people had offered, and he wasn't interested and was going to prep school if he didn't have something like this available, so we did a little research, went up and took a look and liked everything that we saw. He's a great kid, great family, he's very athletic and was coming off of a foot injury that might have slowed him down. So, he might be an overlooked kid. We're kind of excited about him."
At least one of the 2010 recruits will need to step up, not just on the court, but off of it, as the Bears lost emotional leader Boykin as well as the sparkplug Randle.
"Well, it's evolution," says Montgomery. "It's just the next guy ready to step up. You don't ever want to anoint anybody. A kid's going to follow people whether they're freshmen, sophomores or juniors that have leadership abilities. Jerome was a great player for us. Sometimes he got himself in trouble with his leadership style. It wasn't always a seamless transition, so we'll just wait and see what develops in this next group. It really comes from work ethic and leading by example."
The now-veteran Gutierrez is one of those who leads by example, be it playing like his hair is on fire or with his dogged intensity.
"Well, it has to be Jorge, it has to be Harper, returning guys that are coming back that have been there and been successful, Markhuri," Montgomery says. "These guys have played, they're older, and we're looking for leadership from that group."
The team that takes the court next season will be a young one, for sure, but Montgomery doesn't see that as a negative.
"We have an opportunity here to start with a real solid foundation," says Montgomery. "We've got some success with which to play off of, and I think that the kids coming in are talented. I think they're good students that will thrive in this environment, and I think they're kids that we can develop into a very solid group."
When the Bears embark on the defense of their conference title, the rest of the Pac-10 will look quite a bit different. After a down season which saw just Cal and Washington getting bids to the NCAA Tournament, Montgomery believes that the conference could start to recover.
"Well, it's not going to completely turn around. UCLA's got two or three kids that are going to be ineligible that will be available to them another year that will make a big difference for them," says Montgomery. "Arizona's got most of their talent returning, some of which were freshmen last year, so they should be better. Stanford had a good recruiting class like we have had, but we're both going to be young. So, it's not going to go from that, back to probably six or seven automatic bids in the Tournament, but it will recover. It's just that we can't afford a hit where all those first-rounders leave at one time."
With a third-place conference finish in his first year at the helm and a Pac-10 crown in his second, Montgomery takes nothing for granted, especially success.
"Ah, you know, it's been 50 years. I don't know. We took advantage of a window of opportunity with a good group of seniors that came together," he says. "I've been around the league long enough to see some awfully good teams not win it, and so I'm aware of how hard it is. But, we can't worry about what anybody else does. We've just got to try and get this thing to be as good as we can get it and sell what we have to offer. There's always a point where different schools make different decisions about how competitive they feel like they want to be with providing the opportunity to do that, and we're no different."
Check back tomorrow for Part 3 of BearTerritory's conversation with Coach Montgomery, when we'll talk recruiting, facilities and the long-term future of the program.