On Friday night, the chase begins.
The Haas Pavilion doors will open for a 7:30 p.m. tipoff against UC Irvine, students will crowd each other for free soup and bread (for the first 1,000) and the Cal men’s basketball team will start a four-month run at another conference title.
The No. 24 Bears, one year removed from a projected eighth-place conference finish, aren’t being overlooked again as the season officially opens.
Polls? They’re picked to finish second after a surprising fourth-place grab in 2010 but received 13 first-place votes to UCLA’s 14 and Arizona’s 11. In a virtual dead heat, Cal is as strong a title favorite as anyone else in the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones.
The expectations come partially due to the track record of fourth-year coach Mike Montgomery, who is loath to discuss their weight or implications.
“That’s always the bane of coaches, these expectation things that really come from media,” he said. “Our job is just to try to get better and improve and be a consistently good team.”
It’s his success in that latter task that has resulted in all this attention. After only two seasons, Montgomery brought Berkeley its first Pac-10 title in 50 years. The longtime Stanford coach took an ill-fated, two-season NBA detour with the Golden State Warriors, but in his 21 combined years guiding Bay Area college teams, he finished in the bottom half of the conference only three times.
In 2010, he had to work with a shallow depth chart that lost four-star recruit Gary Franklin to a midseason transfer. So, he helped turn freshman Allen Crabbe into one of the top shooting threats on the West Coast, defense-heavy Jorge Gutierrez into a savvy scorer and playmaker
This year is not significantly different. The Bears return a more experienced core than any other team — Crabbe, Gutierrez and forward Harper Kamp all averaged double-digit scoring — but only Crabbe has a true shot at a pro career. In a conference that has yet to reclaim its national prominence since UCLA’s run of Final Fours from 2006-08, overwhelming talent is not a prerequisite for holding a pair of scissors in March.
The lineup still isn’t deep, but it promises to fatten up from last year’s edition. In the low post, sophomore Richard Solomon brings athleticism and range to a frontcourt that lacks a true hard-nosed center. True freshman David Kravish has a knack for blocking shots and, as Montgomery said, “being in the right place at the right time.” Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs led the team in scoring in an exhibition against UCSD last week, and the guard may be the Bears’ biggest threat to penetrate down the lane.
“Last year, I think I really learned what its like to play on the court and not take anything for granted,” Cobbs said. “I was a little lost with myself.
This year, I feel like I’m a little more hungry knowing what I need to do.”
Against the Anteaters, he and the rest of the Bears will have their first chance to prove their mettle.