Familiar Bears look to make run at conference crown

Derek Remsburg/Staff
Senior guard Jorge Gutierrez was selected to the All-Pac-10 defensive team last season.

The Cal men’s basketball team takes on the identity of Jorge Gutierrez.

The senior is a scrappy guard who isn’t especially good at one thing but solid at everything. He’s not the tallest player, but he comes up big. His vastly improved jump shot still misses more than it goes in, but he attempted more than 200 free throws last season. He led the team in scoring, but he was also second in the conference in steals, despite not playing the point.

Most of all, he wins — and so should the No. 24 Bears, predicted to finish second in the Pac-12 as the regular season begins this Friday.

“(He’s) got a tremendous amount of pride and hates to lose and competes,” coach Mike Montgomery said. “That’s generally gonna work for me.”

Gutierrez is the epitome of a Mike Montgomery player: He has a team-first mentality, a defensive mindset and a fiery motor that never flickers. The Chihuahua, Mexico, native leads by example, fighting for loose balls, playing suffocating defense and willing the squad to victory.

“We’re not gonna overpower people by just being more talented, we’re not particularly bigger than people, we’re not particularly more athletic than people, but we have the ability,” Montgomery said. “If we’re consistent with what we know we can do, people can expect roles and do those things to make the team function, we’ll be fine. We’ll be able to beat a lot of people.”

The Bears return all but one player from last season’s 18-15 squad that ended its campaign in the second round of the NIT, one year removed from a Pac-10 title. A strong veteran core of Gutierrez, senior forward Harper Kamp and junior point guard Brandon Smith, along with a stable of young and talented underclassmen, solidifies Cal as a top contender for another conference title run.

No. 17 UCLA was picked to win the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll, but the Bruins — while loaded in the front court — may not have the back court depth to match up with the Bears. On the opposite wing from Gutierrez is sophomore Allen Crabbe, last year’s Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. The guard is pure shooter, who shot 40 percent from 3-point range. Yet Crabbe was often passive at the offensive end last season, reluctant to put the ball on the floor and drive.

“We’ve told our team that for us to be successful, Allen has to get shots,” Montgomery said. “That’s incumbent upon his teammates to make sure he’s getting good shots.

“At the same time, he can’t stand there and wait for everybody else to do his work.”

Crabbe said he’ll be more comfortable in his second season. After a slow start to the regular season. He exploded in the fourth Pac-10 game last year, pouring 30 on Washington State on Jan. 13. That prompted Cougars’ guard Marcus Capers to declare Crabbe the toughest Pac-12 player to defend at Media Day two weeks ago.

“I kind of know where my spots are, kind of know where I need to be on the floor and kind of know what to expect,” Crabbe said. “Just being more confident early, hoping for a faster start than last year.

“My teammates, when I’m getting going, they’re gonna find me.”

Last season the one doing the finding was often Smith, though he’ll have to fight off sophomore transfer Justin Cobbs for playing time at point guard. Smith was steady as a starter last season, but Cobbs, no doubt anxious to be back on the court after redshirting last year, came off the bench in last week’s exhibition game and brought energy and scoring to a stagnant offense. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, the Minnesota transfer powered his way into the paint for 17 points — 16 in the first half — in the 35-point rout of UCSD.

“He didn’t make a lot of mistakes the other night; he was under control,” Montgomery said. “If he can do what he did the other night on a consistent basis, he’s gonna be a big, big part of what we’re doing.”

What the Bears are trying to do is simply improve. Montgomery said the team is “not that good” yet and can’t take anything for granted. Healthy and at almost full strength after surgery after his cancer-removing surgery last month, the coach talked about the importance of not worrying about rankings or predictions.

“We just buy into his scheme, listen to what he has to say, and do what he wants,” Cobbs said.  “He knows what it takes.”

It takes a leader like Gutierrez. Montgomery praised his unselfishness after the exhibition game. Gutierrez passed up several shots or easy scoring chances to instead pass to a teammate.

“That kind of attitude is, if he can get everybody to think like that, really pays dividends for you,” Montgomery said.