For the first time as Cal men’s basketball coach, Mike Montgomery won’t have Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp beside him in Haas Pavilion.
But he may not need them to reach the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in his five seasons in Berkeley.
“We’ve got a good nucleus of players back,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got the pieces to be successful. Now it’s just our job to put them together.”
With questionable post play and an inexperienced bench, the team now belongs to juniors Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs. At Pac-12 Media Day, UCLA coach Ben Howland called them the best pair of guards in the conference.
Crabbe, a 6-foot-6 swingman, is the conference’s second-leading returning scorer at 15.2 a game. A 40 percent 3-point shooter, Crabbe is deadly from behind the arc; however, he is often hesitant to drive, as more than half of his field goal attempts last year were 3-pointers.
“All I need to add to my game is that killer instinct,” Crabbe said. “I feel like when I’m aggressive, I feel like if I can have that mindset and play like that for 40 minutes, I feel like I’ll be OK.”
Meanwhile, Cobbs logged 12.6 points and nearly five assists per contest in his first season in Berkeley. The 6-foot-3 combo guard prides himself on defense and expects guard the opposing team’s best player, as Gutierrez did so successfully for four seasons.
“It’s on me this year,” Cobbs said. “I’m gonna embrace that.”
He and Crabbe are also embracing their role as leaders now that Gutierrez and Kamp have moved on. Both guards said they have been more vocal thus far, and the upperclassmen have taken freshmen under their wings.
Beginning with Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. home exhibition game against San Francisco State, Cobbs and Crabbe will be counted on for much of the heavy lifting. Yet Montgomery recognizes that Cal can’t be a two-man team.
“I know how good they are,” Montgomery said. “But I think for us to be any good as a team, they’re gonna have to know how to make their teammates better. If we’re all standing around waiting for Allen and Justin to score every time, we’re not gonna be very good.”
After struggling this past season, senior point guard Brandon Smith is expected to play more like he did as a sophomore, when he tallied almost four assists per game.
David Kravish had a knack for rebounding the ball as a freshman starter, but the wiry center would get pushed around in the paint. Now at 220 pounds, he won’t need to avoid contact anymore.
The biggest wildcard for the Bears is junior power forward Richard Solomon, who missed the last 15 games of the season after being ruled academically ineligible.
“I think you’re going to see a much more mature individual,” Montgomery said. “That’s not to say that he won’t dunk and pound his chest every now and again, but I think, by and large, he’s a guy that has really grown up and wants to be a part of a team and appreciates his opportunity at Cal.”
Cobbs expects Solomon, the squad’s leading rebounder, to surprise people. The junior will surely have a chip on his shoulder after missing the majority of Pac-12 play.
He could only watch as the frontrunner Bears lost the conference title in the season’s final two weeks.
This year, Cal is picked to finish third in the league behind top-15 schools Arizona and UCLA, but their five-star talent does not concern the Bears.
“I feel like we’re gonna be the ones that people need to be worried about,” Solomon said.
As long as Montgomery isn’t worried about him.
Jonathan Kuperberg covers men’s basketball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org