Countdown to Tipoff: Part 1

BERKELEY-While the Cal basketball team has to wait until next week for the 2010-11 season to officially get underway, the Bears faithful will get the chance this evening to see this year's edition of the defending Pac-10 champions as they take on Division II Sonoma State in a home exhibition starting at 7:30 PM at Haas Pavilion.
"I'm not worried about that at all," said senior center Markhuri Sanders-Frison. "When Harper (Kamp) and Coach Montgomery came back from the Pac-10 Media Day in LA, they told us that they had us picked to come in seventh place, and we weren't surprised. But, we're going to surprise a lot of people. I don't think we'll fall into seventh place at all. I'm very confident in our team.
Cal was picked to finish seventh in the conference by the Pac-10 media, just one season removed from taking home the program's first conference title in 50 years. That's largely due to the departure of a quartet of high-scoring seniors in Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher, Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin.
"Sometimes, you want to be the big, bad guy that everybody's chasing, because that helps you be on your toes every time out," Sanders-Frison said. "At the same time, being the underdog, you can surprise a lot of people. Either way, I like it. It's nothing new. I think we'll be just fine."
Sanders-Frison and Jorge Gutierrez are the only two returning players who logged any significant floor time last season, and now, the blue-collar pair are the poster-boys for the Bears, who were more characterized last season by a high-octane offensive game. This year, it's all about hard work.
"We've made progress," said head coach Mike Montgomery, who is coaching by far the youngest squad that he's ever had. "It's going to require a lot of patience, on everybody's part. There's just a bunch of young kids out there that are working really, really hard to try and do what we're asking of them."
Guided by such workaholics as Sanders-Frison-who lost 30 pounds and reduced his body fat percentage from 27.5 to 18.1 this offseason-the tenacious Gutierrez and the finally-healthy Harper Kamp, the five true freshmen coming in have plenty of solid exemplars, and are no slouches in the weight room and on the floor to start with, either.
"As far as that gritty, blue-collar, going-to-work types of guys, I think we have a lot of those on this team," Sanders-Frison said. "That should make it a lot of fun. It's going to be really interesting to see how this season plays out. I think we're going to be very successful and we're going to surprise a lot of people."
And work they shall. With a starting lineup that could-at times -feature as many as three freshmen, this year's team will bear little resemblance to last year's veteran squad.
"It's both energizing and scary," Montgomery said. "It's scary from the standpoint that there are limitations that they have and are going to have for a while. But it's exciting to watch the light go on when something happens. They're a really good group of kids. They're quality people, they're fun to be around and they like each other. They hang together, so, from that standpoint, I woke up this morning thinking that this is going to be interesting to see what they do, because they're going ot do some funny things."
Like piggy-back rides in the locker room. Just for example. But this new litter of cubs is, first-and-foremost, built around the character of their head coach, and while Papa Bear is understandably a bit wary at the prospect of such a young group and their requisite growing pains, he sees a lot of potential in this bunch that could, down the road, develop into a cohesive-and dangerous unit.
"There's positive energy and the kids don't let themselves get down and they're playing hard," Montgomery said. "If they play hard, I told them that we'll be fine. We can live with mistakes, just try and get it back for us by making a hustle play or picking up a teammate and doing some of those things."
That journey started last Saturday, when the Bears held a closed scrimmage against Sweet 16 participant St. Mary's.
"We scrimmaged St. Mary's on Saturday morning, and it was a real eye-opener for our guys, and I thought we responded well, but initially, the intensity-the level of competitiveness-was something that they just hadn't experienced before," Montgomery said. "Those are the things that we're going to have to learn as we go through the season. We've got some talented kids. We've got some kids that can shoot the ball, and we're going to have to develop our depth. Not everybody's ready for primetime yet, but, as time goes on, I think the kids will start to figure out what they have to do to be successful. But, like I say, it's not going to happen overnight. They're just not going to run out and be polished, experienced, Division I college basketball players, because they've never been in that situation before."
Part of the maturation process will be getting the ball to some of these young shooters-like Allen Crabbe and Gary Franklin-with the possibility to create and to score. Early on, Gutierrez will be taking the floor as the point guard for Cal, a position that the Chihuahua, Mex., native relishes.
"For me, being the point means being a leader," Gutierrez said. "I'm just trying to do as good a job as I can, being a leader. We lost a lot of guys who were pretty good at that, so I'm just trying to be the best I can. I do prefer point guard, because it means I can be more involved with everybody, so I like playing point guard the best."
Gutierrez has plenty of moxie and faith enough in himself that he is willing to turn himself into a quality point guard by sheer force of his not-inconsiderable will.
"I think I can, but when (Montgomery) talks about it, I don't really understand what he's saying, I really don't," Gutierrez winks and smiles when asked whether he agrees with his coach on the point of being taken away from his normal defensive duties while playing the one. "I think I can still be a good point guard and be as aggressive as I am, but he probably sees a difference. I don't know. I don't think I want to prove it to him; I want to prove it to myself, that I can do it."
Montgomery on the other hand, would rather not lose the tenacity and defensive presence that Gutierrez brings to the floor-something that was on full display on Saturday against the Gaels. Instead, junior point Brandon Smith has stepped up as a viable option, both improving his shooting touch and his overall fitness, adding a not inconsiderable amount of muscle over the offseason.
"He'd be your guy that would play that-he's a natural point guard," Montgomery said of Smith. "Justin Cobbs is ineligible, and he's the other natural point guard on the team. Brandon knows how to play that position. He sometimes needs to make sure he's running the club. He has the ability to do that, and he's a tough kid. He's in the best shape of anybody. He can defend and he's a tough kid."
Last season, Smith saw action in 26 of the Bears' 35 games, but played as much as 17 minutes only four times, with Randle serving as the floor general because of his shooting prowess. Smith has been no slouch this offseason, and has worked mightily on his ability to score, though that is not his primary skill.
"He's shooting the ball very well," Montgomery said. "He worked real hard this summer on that part of his game, but that's not really what we need him to do. We need him to make open shots, and he can do that. In fact, I'd rather have him pass up shots to run the club and get others involved, as compared with trying to be a scorer, because that would be more consistent with the role that we need him to play. Obviously, if they're not going to guard him, he needs to make open shots, but he's got to go in and provide the leadership."
Montgomery would prefer to have Smith run the point and allow Gutierrez do what he does best: grind. But, at this early stage, it looks like Gutierrez will be starting at the one come opening night on Nov. 16.
"I think being a point guard, it's assists first and scoring second," Gutierrez said. "I'm still going to try and score, but I think it's more organizing and pass first, then score."
"He can handle the position, and I've been a little bit pleased that Brandon has started to come around now in terms of leadership," Montgomery said. "We needed him to do that, because I've got to get Jorge off the point some. He was our leading rebounder the other day, which is probably not that unusual, for what's going to happen, because we're not very big. Jorge was able to go in and get a lot of rebounds, and I don't know if he can do that all the time from the point guard position because he's got defensive responsibilities. We talked early on about not wanting to lose the intangibles that Jorge brings to the table, if he's not comfortable with that position, but so far, it looks like he's OK out there. He's got to be able to do that, which means he's going to have to give up some of his game, sometimes. It'll be a process for him, if we get in some tough ballgames and we're having a tough time, he might try to take it on his own shoulders, and then you've got your freshman-your young guys-standing there."
Just standing there is the last thing that this group wants-or needs-to do. Young scorers like Emerson Murray, Crabbe, Richard Solomon, Gary Franklin and Alex Rossi will get looks early and often, as this season is sure to prepare them for what could be a stout three-year run beginning a year from now.
"Now, we're trying to build a really solid base, so we're back to pivot feet, balance and first-step quickness and all those kinds of things," said Montgomery, who has gone from a senior-laden team to one that has allowed him to get back to the basics of coaching. "The better they get, over time, the better they're going to be. They're trying to build the foundation for this thing, because we're going to have them all back next year, with the exception of Markhuri, and we'll add a couple. If we can build a decent base this year, then we'll have something to work off of as we move forward."
Check back soon for more season preview coverage as BearTerritory counts down to tip-off.