Cal men’s basketball shoved into national spotlight for wrong reasons

Jonathan Kuperberg

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There were six TV cameras at Tuesday’s weekly press conference, crowding a usually barren room in Haas Pavilion.

The Cal men’s basketball team (16-9, 8-5 in the Pac-12) deserves media buzz for winning five of its last six games, including upsets of two top-10 teams, and shoving its way into the conference title race. Instead, the Bears are only receiving headlines because of a shove.

Four minutes into the second half of Cal’s come-from-behind 76-68 win over USC on Sunday, Montgomery — frustrated with his team’s uninspired play against an inferior opponent — pushed Crabbe, his best player, whose defensive lapses had just led to two wide-open 3-pointers for the Trojans.

Yes, Montgomery should not have pushed Crabbe. There is a difference between a playful jab to the chest and a shove, and the head coach got carried away. He overreacted. So, too, did Crabbe, who angrily walked off the court, and teammates Richard Solomon and Justin Cobbs, who followed him there.

I understand the need for the formal apology from Montgomery that night, a statement from Athletics Director Sandy Barbour and a reprimand from Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott. But let’s leave it at that.

Let’s stop talking about Mike Montgomery’s push and start talking about Cal’s push.

Let’s stop talking about Allen Crabbe’s performance after the push and start talking about his performance the entire season.

Montgomery, with his nearly 40 years of coaching experience and leaguewide respect, deserves the benefit of the doubt. He immediately put Crabbe back in the game when he returned to the bench and apologized after the game. Crabbe, who after the game said there were no hard feelings, called the media attention on Tuesday “blown out of proportion.”

That attention should be focused on his Pac-12 Player of the Year resume. He scored 14 points after the incident on Sunday, leading the Bears’ comeback in just another in a string of exceptional games. He leads the conference in scoring with 19.8 points per game. He has now won two consecutive Pac-12 Player of the Week awards, averaging more than 21 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals during the four-game span. And his team is quietly moving up the league standings.

Last year, more than half of Crabbe’s field goal attempts were from behind the arc. This season, while still not as aggressive as he should be, he has evolved as a player — curls, mid-range jumpers, floaters, not to mention better defense and rebounding. He even launches threes when guarded, and why not? At 6-foot-6, he can jump and shoot over most defenders.

When Crabbe is intercepting passes, hitting threes and pounding his chest at halfcourt, he energizes the entire team and — in the case of this past weekend — the entirety of Haas Pavilion.

Crabbe has blossomed under Montgomery’s tutelage and hands-on approach. By no means is he the only one.

Tyrone Wallace has made an instant impact as a freshman despite struggling with his shot. Richard Solomon, suspended most of last season and inconsistent his whole career, is finally starting to show his potential, totaling 21 points and 15 rebounds in this weekend’s sweep of the Los Angeles schools. Reserves Robert Thurman and Bak Bak do not have the talent of many of their opponents, but they know their roles and are invaluable pieces to Cal’s lineup.

Who knows where this team would be without Montgomery, but it probably would not be in fourth place. It probably would not be on the NCAA Tournament bubble. And it probably would not be the hottest team on the West Coast.

Just three weeks ago, the Bears were irrelevant. So instead of debating the consequences of Montgomery’s two hands, why don’t we give his team a hand?

Now, if only we could get people to start talking about Cal’s sixth-ranked women’s basketball team …

Jonathan Kuperberg covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].

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