In mid-January, Cal fans started to grow restless. The Cal men’s basketball team had won six games in a row, including five straight in the Pac-12. The Bears had demolished then-No. 17 Oregon by 13 points in Eugene, Ore., and the team was undefeated on its home court. Cal faithful began to grumble: Why was this team not ranked?
Did the Associated Press know something about Cal basketball casual fans didn’t?
After that brief peak at 14-4, the team proceeded to lose its next three in a row, including an ugly loss to USC, a Pac-12 bottom dweller. There were no more calls for Cal to join the top 25.
But then the Bears shocked everyone by topping No. 1 and previously unbeaten Arizona on Feb. 1. Was Cal an NCAA team or an NIT team? What in the world was happening in Berkeley?
For the rest of the season, the Bears battled to make the NCAA tournament. Once considered a lock, Cal soon found itself on the bubble as its losses began to pile up. Cal dropped eight of its final 13 games in the regular season and was staring down the underwhelming prospect of playing in the NIT.
“Nobody wants to play in the NIT,” Justin Cobbs said before the Pac-12 tournament began.
Unfortunately for Cobbs, that is exactly where he and the team would end up. Cal lost in the second round of the Pac-12 tournament to Colorado, essentially sealing the second NIT berth in Mike Montgomery’s six-year tenure at Cal.
As a No. 2 seed, Cal advanced to the Elite Eight of the NIT. But the Bears fell to SMU in a thriller, ending a frustrating season.
“Well, as disappointed as it is to be one shot away from going to New York, I was really proud of these guys and the effort they put forth,” Montgomery said after that loss.
It’s hard to call the Bears’ season anything other than a disappointment. Though the team lost former Pac-12 player of the year Allen Crabbe to the NBA, it was assumed that contributions from junior Ricky Kreklow and freshman Jabari Bird would bridge the gap. And with one of the best recruiting classes in Montgomery’s tenure at Cal, the Bears were expected to shine.
Instead, they collapsed. And now, less than a week after falling short in the NIT, Montgomery announced he is retiring from college basketball.
“It’s all good; it’s all positive,” Montgomery said. “It’s all for the right reasons. I feel good about my decision — I feel like it’s time.”
Montgomery’s successor will have his work cut out for him. The team will lose both Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon, seniors whose NCAA eligibility has run out. Cobbs was the team’s leading scorer with 15.6 points per game, and Solomon averaged a double-double throughout the season. The two accounted for nearly 35 percent of the team’s points, even after Solomon missed five games.
Though Cobbs was Cal’s field general, Solomon may be the more crucial loss. At times, the Bears lacked competent big men to put on the floor when either Solomon or David Kravish got into foul trouble. Without Solomon, Cal will need to find someone else — either Kameron Rooks or an incoming freshman — to contribute.
Waiting in the wings is a talented group of players. Jabari Bird, Tyrone Wallace, David Kravish or Jordan Mathews could take flight next year, becoming the next star or group of stars for the Bears.
“We have a terrific group of young people that are ready to take the next step,” Montgomery said.