A Little Experience but A Lot of Heart


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In his first season at Cal, Mike Montgomery took a ninth-place team dancing.

For an encore, he perched the program atop the Pac-10 for the first time in 50 years.

2010-2011 brought neither a conference title, nor games on CBS in March.

And Rick Pitino wasn't humbled in the opening round ... by the Bears, anyway.

Still, year three may have featured Montgomery's most impressive work yet - if last spring was Dancing With the Stars, this season has been nothing short of an Extreme Makeover.

Just consider the situation he inherited.

Harper Kamp didn't step foot onto the court during last year's NCAA win over Louisville, as he redshirted and missed the entire season due to a nagging knee injury.

Brandon Smith suited up, but he was used only sparingly to spell Jerome Randle - and never saw the court in four of the team's final five games.

Markhuri Sanders-Frison played just three minutes against the Cardinals after getting in early foul trouble - a microcosm of his frustrating first season in Berkeley. Jorge Gutierrez was still mainly a defensive spark plug, while Allen Crabbe and Richard Solomon had yet to finish high school.

Those unproven commodities made up the core of the conference's biggest surprise.

Whether humorous ("We're not going to win any beauty contests") or frank ("I don't know if we would have ever played this lineup"), Montgomery made it clear that this season was an experiment - only he has delivered results earlier than anyone anticipated.

Under his guidance, four players who had never been go-to scorers at the college level averaged double figures for the Bears. A sputtering offense that mustered just five first-half points early in the year, Cal developed a chemistry and execution that Arizona coach Sean Miller labeled "second to none."

On the other end of the floor, Cal were forced to play primarily zone due to limited depth - but Montgomery's team still wasn't afraid to get aggressive and only improved defensively as the season went on.

Perhaps most importantly, a squad that graduated five seniors had no shortage of reliable veteran leadership.

"We talked about it with Jorge, Harper and Markhuri that somebody has to take over off the court," Montomery said after the Stanford win. "Over the summer, there were no ifs, ands or buts about working hard. They were fabulous."

With the core of this year's squad returning in the fall, that hustle will not go away.

There will be one considerable difference, though.

Be it a pair of two-point defeats against Arizona, or admirable performances throughout a brutal non-conference slate, Cal's effort this season wasn't always rewarded in the final score.

Expect that to change next year, as the pangs of inexperience subside for everyone and late-game composure increases.

The "what ifs" that players expressed at the end of this spring should be far less frequent.

"We have all the keys to unlock the doors we want," said Sanders-Frison, Cal's lone graduating senior, after completing Pac-10 play. "If we seized a few of those close games, we would have been right there ... We were right there."

Indeed, this past season with Montgomery at the helm, the Bears learned to compete.

Next year, they'll know what it's like to win.


Laugh at Rick Pitino with Ed at [email protected]

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