Publisher's Note: This is the first in a series of articles stemming from an interview with Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. In Part 1, Montgomery gives a retrospective on the past season, and gives injury updates on some of the fallen Bears. Part 2 will focus on the offseason activities of the team.
At the preseason Bay Area College Baseball Media Day, California head coach David Esquer said that head Cal basketball coach Mike Montgomery could take his roster of players, sight unseen, and go out and win a Pac-10 series. That, Esquer said, is the kind of coach Montgomery is. He's more than a technician, more than a basketball mind; he's a leader.
This past basketball season, Montgomery took a rag-tag group of disparate parts -- after having lost Omondi Amoke and D.J. Seeley to dismissal and a transfer and center Max Zhang to the Chinese National Team, and then losing four-star recruit Gary Franklin to a transfer just as Pac-10 play began -- and guided them to a fourth-place tie in the conference and a second-round run in the National Invitational Tournament.
Montgomery at times started two true freshmen, alternated junior Jorge Gutierrez with a sophomore point guard with 174 minutes of game experience in Brandon Smith, a center who missed significant time in 2010 with back issues and a power forward with a twice-operated-on knee. He had one player -- Justin Cobbs -- sitting out because of NCAA transfer rules for the whole year, and another transfer -- Jeff Powers unavailable for half the season.
With those burdens, it was no surprise when the Bears were picked to finish seventh in the conference in the preseason. Instead, they finished 18-14 overall and 10-8 in the Pac-10, boasted one first-team All-Pac-10 selection in Gutierrez and the conference's Freshman of the Year in Allen Crabbe. Many considered the 2011 season one of the finest coaching jobs in Montgomery's 29 years as a collegiate head coach.
"Every job is different, every year's different," says Montgomery, who will enter his fourth season at the helm in Berkeley next year. "What we ended up having with this group is some tremendous intangibles. We had a group of kids that were very unselfish, that really put all of their energies into trying to win games and didn't care who got the credit. When you get a team like that, it's a lot of fun to coach, because we were hard to beat. We just wouldn't give in. We had some real tough kids, some real tough-minded kids, and that's a fun way to approach it. I thought kids developed throughout the year, got better, understood their roles, accepted their roles and it was a fun group to coach."
Montgomery's reputation as a big man's coach added yet another page with the emergence of 6-foot-10 true freshman Richard Solomon.
Early in the year, Solomon looked soft when missing easy dunks, had a shot blocked by a player three inches shorter than him, nearly had the ball stolen twice as he ran the court for a lay-in against Northridge and was bullied down low by San Diego State. Then, as the year progressed, something clicked. All of a sudden, his shoulders seemed broader. He began to stand taller and run with purpose. Then, the dunks started falling. The hard fouls started coming. The defense began to come together. He started blocking shots. His field goal percentage shot up from 55.8 to 62.3 and his free throws improved (52.2 percent to 54.9). He dished out 11 of his 20 assists on the season in conference play. 14 of Solomon's 27 blocks on the season came in his 18 Pac-10 games. He got bigger, he got stronger and he got meaner in the paint.
"You've got to prepare yourself for opportunities," says Montgomery. "Being given the opportunity is different than being able to take advantage of it, so he watched and the players started to realize that he could finish around the basket and he had some really good games for us. He was given an opportunity, and he went in and didn't waste it. He started to make good plays, started to gain confidence. The fact that we didn't have a lot of depth, it wasn't like we were just going to sit somebody down. We needed everybody to do their jobs, and he did that."
With the departure of center Markhuri Sanders-Frison, Solomon will undoubtedly be thrust into the spotlight in his sophomore year as Cal tries to find an heir-apparent to the 6-foot-7, 265-pound big body with a devastating back-to-basket game. One of the key tasks for the coaching staff this summer will be to mold Solomon's back-to-basket game to a point where he will eventually take over that role.
"Well, we're trying," says Montgomery. "That's not something that Richard's real comfortable with right now, but at his size and his length, it'll just augment what else he does away from the basket, so we're trying to get him to buy in to really developing a go-to move with back-to-basket, maybe a counter to that. We're going to need some people in the paint. We can't have everybody standing out on the perimeter. We're working with Richard on that, and, again, he's just got a tremendous upside, and the harder he works, the more he understands that, the better he's going to get."
Junior power forward Harper Kamp will take over where Sanders-Frison left off under the basket as Solomon matures. After missing all of 2010 and much of 2009 with knee surgeries, Kamp emerged as one of the Bears' go-to scorers in 2011, averaging 14.2 points and 5.6 boards per game. As Kamp knocked the rust off and grew into his leadership role as one of precious few veterans, he got even better.
In Pac-10 play, Kamp averaged 15.6 points and 5.7 boards, averaging 36 minutes on the floor and sinking 53.6 percent of his shots, second only to Sanders-Frison among regulars. With whispy incoming freshman David Kravish not physically ready to take the reins down low, Solomon still learning and Bak Bak adding strength, Kamp will be the most ready-made option down low, especially with such big bodies as UCLA's Joshua Smith clogging the lane.
"Harper's the most likely guy. He's good back to basket. He knows what he's doing around there," says Montgomery. "Bak, Richard, David Kravish is 6-10 but he's very thin coming in, so he's skilled, but he's going to get bounced around a little bit in there until he can get stronger. Christian Behrens is 6-8, he too is more of a face-up type player, so we're going to have to adjust. Everybody's going to have to do a little bit of back-to-basket stuff, but when you get a guy like Markhuri, at 6-7, 265-plus, that's just a natural spot for him in there. We'll miss his size, we'll miss his strength inside."
Sanders-Frison's departure -- though tough to bear -- is the only loss that this team will face. With Gutierrez fully recovered from a concussion suffered in a second-round NIT loss to Colorado, the return of freshman sharpshooter Alex Rossi from a hernia that cost him all of last season, the eligibility of Cobbs and the entrance of Kravish and Behrens, the depth issues that plagued the Bears all season will become a thing of the past.
That lack of depth was no more apparent than in the loss to the Buffaloes, when the combined absences of Sanders-Frison and Gutierrez proved too much for the youthful Bears to endure.
"We couldn't keep taking pieces away from this puzzle and expect this to be successful," says Montgomery. "We lost Markhuri the night before the NIT game and didn't have him in either game, and then Jorge went down, that was just too much to overcome. Those things happen. If you've got better depth to start with, sometimes you can overcome that, and we didn't have great depth. At that point, we were pretty much done."
Gutierrez is now fully-recovered from his bell-ringing, something Montgomery is finally able to laugh about.
"He got a concussion, and it took him probably three weeks to really get back to where he was able to play before they would clear him. Fortunately, he's a hard-headed kid, so he got it in the right spot," he chuckles.
While Gutierrez is unquestionably the floor leader with his fire and intensity, he is more often than not the strong, silent type. To replace Sanders-Frison's vocal, chest-pounding brand of leadership, Montgomery will turn to Kamp.
"Harper will talk. He's got to get his health 100 percent so he can just focus on playing the game and being that leader. He does a great job with it, but Markhuri was a guy that everybody respected," says Montgomery. "He was a guy who had been through some tough times and didn't have any pretense about him, so he was a great leader that way. Jorge does it on the floor, with his actions, so Harper and Jorge, will, I would think, be the leaders. Brandon is trying to start to be more vocal. He understands that, at that point guard position, as a third-year guy, he can do more of that. I think we'll be OK that way. Allen doesn't do much of that, but as he matures and grows into his role, he'll do more of that, as well."
With Smith now having an entire year under his belt, Montgomery finally has a sure option at point guard after shuttling between Smith, Gutierrez and Franklin during the early part of the season. Next year, Cobbs will be thrown into the mix, and it's not too hard to see him making a play for the starting gig. So, what exactly will his role be?
"To be determined," Montgomery breathes. "He's been really good in practice, but he hasn't played in a game. Brandon proved to be very valuable last year, so you've got him, Allen and Jorge at those three spots. Emerson Murray (is) coming off surgery, we'll see where he is, so we expect (Cobbs) to have a fairly significant impact on our team."
Murray -- who saw time in late-game situations and as a defensive spark last season -- had a plate in his foot removed, a leftover from a broken foot, which caused him to miss much of his senior season in high school. Murray's roommate Rossi has been back working out, but recently hit a small speed bump.
"He has been in the gym. He had a little bit of a setback here this last week, but it wasn't a major setback," says Montgomery. "He just needs time to get himself and his body back to where it needs to be, and it's just been very frustrating for him. He needs time. If he goes too fast, then the (previous) inactivity sets him back."
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Catching Up With Coach.