LOS ANGELES — There weren’t too many surprises at Friday’s Pac-12 Basketball Media Day, but there was definitely one big one — and then one big collective sigh of relief.
It had been reported that Cal coach Mike Montgomery underwent successful surgery on Oct. 19, but the athletic department did not reveal the reason behind the surgery. On Friday in the Conga Room in Los Angeles, Montgomery announced that a month ago he was diagnosed with high-grade bladder cancer, but now he is totally cancer free.
“They went in and did a cystoscope to look at a diverticulum that I had, and there was something in there that wasn’t supposed to be in there,” Montgomery said. “I’m 100 percent good to go now.”
Montgomery called the diagnosis and surgery a “series of extremely fortuitous events,” as the tumor was discovered at an opportune time enabling him to have a clean bill of health only one month later.
“Three months ago we wouldn’t have found this, six months from now you’d be done,” he said. “So the timing couldn’t have been better.”
The timing is also good for the Cal men’s basketball team, now that the squad has its coach back as it gears up for a season with high expectations. The Bears are picked to finish second in the Pac-12 in the media poll, finishing with 405 votes — one more vote than third-place Arizona and 16 fewer than first-place UCLA. Cal is ranked No. 24 in both the AP and ESPN polls.
“We certainly don’t feel slighted,” Montgomery said. “It’s a hard-working group with good work ethic, reasonable-to-good talent, that I think we have a chance to be pretty competitive.”
The Bears’ head coach, in his fourth year in Berkeley, said he thought last season’s team had a number of question marks and “overachieved.” This season’s squad, however, has the answers.
Asked who is the most difficult player in the conference to guard, Washington State Marcus Capers answered, “Allen Crabbe.” And with good reason. Besides the fact that the Bears’ sophomore swingman torched the Cougars for 30 points in their Jan. 13 matchup, Crabbe is expected to play at an even higher level than he did last season as the Pac-10 Freshman of the Years. He powers a strong backcourt along with senior guard Jorge Gutierrez.
Montgomery called the Chihuahua, Mexico native one of the toughest players he has ever coached. Gutierrez, in turn, credited his coach.
“He makes me a better player, a better person, a better student,” Gutierrez said. “We missed him when he was gone, but we’re excited to have him back soon.”
While Monday will be his first day back full time, Montgomery said he was in the office and at practice this week. He noted the Bears’ depth will once again be a concern heading into the 2011-12 campaign. He also admitted that last year he was forced to play some guys a little too much out of necessity and as a result the team “paid a price towards the end of the season.”
While no team is the same the following year, Cal returns more players than just about every other Pac-12 squad. The biggest returnee is Montgomery himself, and conference’s other coaches are glad he’s back and healthy.
“Obviously, everybody’s prayers are with Mike,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said. “Not a more respected coach in the whole country, not a guy that’s done a better job at different levels, different places in the whole country.
“It’s great to see him healthy. He’s got a good team, he’s a great coach and they’re going to be a handful to deal with.”