BERKELEY-The last time that Kansas paid a visit to Berkeley, the Jayhawks' leading star was a young man by the name of Wilt Chamberlain.
Cal was on its way to a 21-5, 14-2 season, finishing first in the Pacific Coast Conference, and the first of four straight conference titles and NCAA Tournament appearances under the watchful eye of legendary coach Pete Newell. Kansas posted a 24-3 mark, winning the then-Big Seven and reaching the NCAA Tournament's championship game, where the Jayhawks fell to North Carolina in overtime.
One of those 24 wins came at the expense of the Bears, who fell 66-56 at the then-Men's Gym (the predecessor to Harmon Gym on the site of the current Haas Pavilion).
Now, for the first time in 54 years, Kansas will come back to Berkeley, sporting their traditional size, strength and athleticism-along with a lofty No. 3 ranking-while Cal comes into the inaugural edition of the Pete Newell Classic as a relative novice.
"I think, probably, depth-wise, it's going to be difficult for us just because they're going to really run nine guys at you-Thomas Robinson off the bench, I remember watching him in high school, and he's a really athletic, big kid-and they'll continue to run quality players at you," said Bears head coach Mike Montgomery. "They'll play eight, nine, 10 guys at you, and they all play hard, they all know what they're doing and they defend very well. It could be difficult from a standpoint of attrition, just in terms of wearing us down. They've been able to do that."
The last time that the Bears (6-4) squared off with the Jayhawks (10-0), Monty was just a wee lad of seven years old. Since then, he's gone on to bigger and better things, of course, including winning 599 collegiate wins as a head coach. His former counterpart from his days at Stanford-women's coach Tara VanDerveer-has come up short in her two attempts to win No. 800, but Montgomery's players aren't about to make him wait for his milestone.
"I don't have a gift for him yet, but that would be a good Christmas present for me, also," laughed junior power forward Harper Kamp. "I'd like to get him 600 wins against an opponent like Kansas. That would be great. But, just to get that win in general, would be a great feeling, and winning at home."
"It'd be a nice Christmas present, wouldn't it?" Montgomery said through a smile. "Well, we'll get there sooner or later. Hopefully sooner rather than later. I mean, you give me those four years back that I lost, and I'd be up there. I still try to get them to add that 68, but they won't let me. At some points, it is what it is, but it's a lot of good kids and a lot of winning seasons, really.
"The numbers thing has never been what it's all about. There's always something more. I quit worrying about that. If and when it happens, it'll be a nice little thing to have and then we'll go from there."
With two true freshmen in the starting lineup, the team's lone senior-Markhuri Sanders-Frison-hobbled by a double-dose of plantar fasciitis and a sharpshooter likely out for the season (Alex Rossi), the team has its work cut out against the undefeated Jayhawks, but while these Bears are thin on pretty much everything, they're far from lacking in the heart department.
"They are a great basketball team with few weaknesses, but I think we have as good a chance as anybody of coming in here and playing our game, playing solid defense and playing good basketball," said Kamp. "I think we can win the ballgame if we play that way."
Sanders-Frison went so far as to say that the Jayhawks are "beatable."
"We want to win every game," the big center said. "We respect our opponent, but we don't think that just because of some name or some number in front of the team that we're going to play any different."
Standing in the way of that ambition is a team that even Montgomery admits is likely Final-Four bound.
"They've got the depth, they've got the size and they can compete with most people," he said. "They're a real good basketball team. They're big, they're athletic. They don't do a lot of stuff. They don't try to be real complex with what they do, but they're very organized and disciplined in what they do do. They pound you at the post, they play a lot of high-low, there's a lot of on-ball screens with roll replace, they're talented as always. They've got everybody back from last year, plus the addition of the freshman point guard, who got off to a fairly good start."
A fairly good start is an understatement. After being suspended by the NCAA for some funny business during his recruitment, true freshman Josh Selby scored 21 points in his collegiate debut, including a three-pointer with 20.7 seconds left to propel the Jayhawks to a big 70-68 win over USC.
The Trojans were just the latest victims for a Kansas squad that has cut a swath across the Pac-10 with wins over UCLA (77-76 on Dec. 2) and Arizona (87-79 on Nov. 27).
"I think they're in first place in the Pac-10," Montgomery said, jokingly. "I don't know why that came about. Maybe they start looking around for games in terms of distance and quality that that's the best. It's hard. If you start looking at quality opponents for West Coast games, where do you go?"
Two-guard Gary Franklin, who saw time at the one in Saturday's win over Cal Poly, has played Selby before and doesn't need much to get fired up for the nationally-televised contest on Wednesday night.
"Not only for our team, but for our conference, we have something to prove, as far as playing ranked teams pretty well," Franklin said. "I think, just watching games on TV-USC, Washington-they've played teams pretty well, and we beat a ranked team as well. As far as the Kansas game, I feel that we should come out and play hard and prove that our conference is building. I feel like it's stronger than what people think."
Franklin and the 6-foot-2, 183-pound guard out of Baltimore, Md., have seen one another during their time as hot prep prospects, so Cal's true freshman knows exactly what to expect out of a young man who has only one collegiate game under his belt.
"I saw him actually at a lot of camps-at the Lebron Camp and at the NBA Top-100 Camp," Franklin said. "I played him pretty well. I feel like we have a mutual respect. I watched some films from some of those camps, so it'll be pretty fun going up against him. I feel like Wednesday is going to be really fast. Those guys are athletic and I feel like we're pretty athletic. They like to score and we like to score, but I feel like we play pretty good defense. They're bigger than us, which will allow us to run a little more, but I'm anticipating a hard-fought game."
Defense has been the hallmark for this Bears squad, which has been largely bereft of proven shooters this season. Cal leads the Pac-10 in defensive rebounding, pulling down 268 boards in 10 games while allowing opponents to pull down just 86 offensive rebounds (a 75.5% clip). The Bears' 26.8 boards per game are also tops in the conference. Cal holds opponents to a 31.1 shooting percentage from beyond the three-point line (third in the Pac-10) and 39.6% from the floor (second in the conference). This bunch may be young, but they can play defense.
"The one thing that we are doing that's allowing us to win some games is we're defending," Montgomery said. "Our offensive numbers aren't great, but our defensive numbers are really very impressive. It's something that some of these kids have never had to do. We've challenged them to be good defensively and it's kept us in games, and the kids are competitive, so they're willing to do that. If we can make that something that they take some pride in and it becomes a part of who we are, then if we get better offensively it'll just help us."
But for now, the Baby Bears have had to learn on the fly, in their first season which has so far been a trial by fire for most of the true freshmen, who have taken turns struggling with the transition to the college game.
The latest victim of the first-year transition has been four-star recruit Allen Crabbe. Despite hitting what turned out to be the pivotal three-pointer on Saturday against the Mustangs, Crabbe is shooting just 11.1% (1-for-9) from the floor in his last three contests. Crabbe's legs have been shaky for several weeks now, which has affected his shooting.
"He had a good week last week and he actually said they were feeling a lot better and he went up and dunked one in traffic (in practice) and felt pretty good. I thought he looked tired on Saturday a little bit, just in terms of running up and down, but it's hard to know how much these finals take out of freshmen," Montgomery said. "They've never had to deal with this before. They just have never had to deal with still playing and still training hard in practice and they've got finals where they're not given six multiple-choice questions, you know, or them telling you what's on the test. They're asking you to read a book and tell them what it said. That's different for them, so they feel a little pressure having never gone through it before. I'm sure there was some fatigue from that, as well.
"Allen's going to be a good player. The more confidence he gains, the more aggressive, once he matures and gets stronger, he's going to end up being a good player."
One player who has made strides thus far-particularly on the defensive end-is 6-foot-9 true freshman Richard Solomon, who has gained 20 pounds of muscle since entering the program and has taken a big leap as far as self-confidence and court presence in the past several games.
Solomon has drawn more fouls over his past three contests and capitalized effectively, going 6-of-9 from the charity stripe. He's shot 3-of-7 for 13 points over that stretch, adding three steals, two blocks and 15 boards.
"Growing up, everyone always said, 'That kid has a lot of potential.' I think I'm at the point now where I don't want to hear that anymore," Solomon said. "I want to start hearing people say, 'He's getting it. He's starting to get it. He's growing as a player and is mentally maturing as a player.' I'm just trying to get to the next level. I'm trying to always just get better. You can never be satisfied with where I am. You should never be satisfied with where you are. You should always think that you can get better and always learn from other players who are trying to help you out, and that's how you achieve that next step."
And for the Bears, that next step will be proving competitive against the No. 3 team in the land; certainly, no small task.
"We've got to shoot the ball well against them, we've got to minimize turnovers, we've got to be smart in how we try to play them," Montgomery said. "They don't have any glaring weaknesses where you say, 'Well, if you take this away from them, they're going to not be able to do that.' They're a well-rounded team, across the board. They can shoot it from out(side). Their perimeter guys, percentage-wise, shoot it. Their inside guys, percentage-wise, shoot it. They board the ball very well. It'll be a challenge for us. They're traditionally just a strong basketball team."
The Jayhawks come in to Haas Pavilion with their second straight 10-0 start, the fourth time in the Bill Self era in which they've accomplished that feat. They lead the Big 12 in scoring margin (+24.9), field goal percentage (54.2), three-point field goal percentage (40.4), three-point percentage defense (27.1), assists (19.2 per game), blocked shots (6.3 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4). Simply put, they just don't make mistakes.
Aside from Selby, the team's scoring leader is 6-foot-9, 235-pound junior forward Marcus Morris, who's 16.3 points per game is good for eighth in the Big 12 while his 61.6 shooting percentage leads the conference. His twin brother Markieff Morris-checking in at 6-foot-10, 245 pounds- is no slouch either, averaging 12.2 points per game and leading the Big 12 with 9.0 rebounds per contest.
Marcus is the more versatile of the two, and has a greater shooting range, hitting threes at a 50% (11-for-22) pace to his brother's 31.3% (5-for-16). That will most likely draw veteran defender Kamp, who has been a force in high-post defense while Sanders-Frison and Bak Bak have taken the load in the low post.
"They're both good players. I just have to keep to the defense that I always try and play and try to do the best that we can against them," Kamp said. "They've got a pretty good system that they run with each other, a lot of pick-and-rolls. They like to go high-low, and we've definitely got our hands full."
While Solomon's defense away from the basket has improved, he's not quite up to the task yet of defending a dominant low-post game.
"He can rebound away from the basket. He's not necessarily a good two-foot jumper in traffic," Montgomery said. "Where he's good is when he's away from the ball and he can go get a running jump at it, he goes up pretty high, but it's hard to get a gauge. He's gotten better and better, both he and Bak have. Sometimes you'll play Richard and then you'll put in Bak and Bak will play real well, so you'll go with Bak a little longer and the next time, Richard plays a little better and we'll go with Richard. What you need is to know what they're going to give you on a consistent basis and you can kind of plan for that. You're not really sure what it is right now."
Defending the low post could be more difficult than the Bears would have liked, especially given the fact that Sanders-Frison won't be at 100% any time soon.
"Markhuri practiced (Monday), and didn't look too bad. I think he's going to have to learn how to deal with pain," Montgomery said. "Obviously, I hope he gets better. He got some orthotics he likes, and other than that, I think everybody's in pretty good shape."
The solution that presented itself last week-whereby Sanders-Frison only fully participated in a single practice while the team took its various finals-appears to be untenable in the long run.
"No, it's not (an option)," Montgomery said. "He's not going to be effective. He's actually been fairly effective offensively. We're kind of force-feeding him at one spot on the floor and he's responded, but a lot of the other stuff that he's used to doing or used to do, he's not doing. He's not moving on defense and he's not covering like he did at one time because he's just not moving, and that's something that we have to get. He has to stay in shape, he has to get in rhythm, he has to practice. That whole thing (not practicing), that's not going to work."
• Rossi is looking more and more like he may have to be redshirted this season with a "lower abdominal injury."
"He's not good enough to do anything. He's just getting off that shot, and hopefully it's going to get better," Montgomery said of his true freshman's treatment. "He has to feel well enough to rehab, and he's not even where he can rehab. That's been the problem because he hasn't been able to do anything to try and get stronger in the area because it hurts so much. He gets to that point, and he can start rehabbing and we can find out whether we can get that thing stronger. We'll see."
• Kansas leads the all-time series with Cal, 15-3, including the 84-69 victory by the Jayhawks last season in Lawrence, Kan.
• The Pete Newell Classic was established to honor the legacy of Hall-of-Fame hoops coach Pete Newell. Beginning with Wednesday's match-up, one game a year will be designated the Pete Newell Classic by Cal Athletics, which will attempt to schedule at least one marquee intersectional home game per season.
• Montgomery's 599 wins put him at No. 6 on the list of active career coaching wins leaders, behind Roy Williams (621), Gary Williams (656), Jim Calhoun (831), Jim Boeheim (840) and Mike Krzyzewski (878).
• Montgomery on Kansas's historical dominance: "I played against Kansas a couple times when Roy (Williams) was there, I think in the NCAA Tournament-one in the NCAA Tournament and once in another tournament. Last year was the first time I'd gone to Kansas and played, and I was notably impressed with the history and tradition that is Kansas basketball. Everywhere you turn, I mean, you look at their press guide and you look at their retired jerseys and the Hall-of-Famers and the NBA guys, you're kind of left going, 'Woah!' You just don't really realize. I remember when Ted Owens was there, way back when, and he was winning about 25 a year and they let him go. Guess he wasn't getting it done. Basketball is a huge deal there. It's probably one of the few schools around the country where basketball takes precedence over any other sport."
• Montgomery on the milestone of 600 wins and VanDerveer's pursuit of 800 wins: "She didn't have much luck the first few times, did she?" Montgomery laughed. "It's incredible. It's a lot of wins, I don't care how you slice it. It's just a lot of wins. It's a lot of basketball. She's been in the situation where she's had one of the premier programs in the country for 25 years or something like that, so those wins have really piled up. You're looking at, at least 25 wins a year, and they've really added up for her. She's been remarkable. That program is one of the premier programs in the country, and the gals around the country are looking to. If you're looking for top basketball, that's one place they would have to consider."
What did Montgomery take from her in their years coaching on The Farm? "I tried to stay out of her way or I'd get yelled at," he chuckles.
• On hosting the highest-ranked nonconference opponent since the Bears hosted No. 3 Kansas State in 1958: "This year's schedule is, heh, is plenty good enough for us," Montgomery said wryly. "But, it should be interesting. We've enjoyed the series with Kansas, of course you should check with me after Wednesday's game. It was fun going back there. I thought that was a really good experience."