When the Cal men’s basketball team started this season, fans were thinking championship or bust. With over a month to go, some may already be leaning bust.
The Bears are still tied for first in the Pac-12, but the blue and gold faithful have plenty of reasons to cry doom and gloom. Forward Richard Solomon is academically ineligible, making an already thin roster downright anorexic. The team also just lost at Washington State, which had earlier given lowly Utah its first conference win of the season.
But panic not, Cal fans — your dreams haven’t been derailed.
The Bears can survive Solomon being an idiot. They survived Gary Franklin being an idiot last season, and Omondi Amoke being an idiot the season before that.
As long as Mike Montgomery is still on the sideline, Cal can survive.
The veteran coach is a master at squeezing his teams into overachievement. In 21 years coaching in this conference, only one of his squads has ever finished worse than sixth.
Prior to his Berkeley tenure, Montgomery spent 18 years across the bay, transforming a moribund program into a perennial feature of March Madness.
Excepting a 1942 NCAA Championship, Stanford basketball had never seen the postseason before Montgomery’s arrival in 1986. In Montgomery’s last 10 years there, the Cardinal played in the tournament 10 straight times. By the time Montgomery left in 2004, Stanford had appeared in a Sweet Sixteen (1997), an Elite Eight (2001) and a Final Four (1998).
His latest campaign is perhaps the clearest evidence of his prowess. After guiding Cal to its first Pac-10 championship in 50 years, Montgomery was faced with losing five seniors and four starters. The Bears were picked to finish eighth in the conference. To make matters worse, Franklin bailed after 13 games, deciding to transfer despite averaging 25.7 minutes and 8.2 points as a true freshman.
No matter — by the time March rolled around, a young Cal squad had made its way to fourth place.
This year, the team is also helped by a down year in the Pac-12 — although three such years in a row should soon soon replace the phrase “down year” with “perennial mediocrity.”
To be frank, the Pac-12 is by far the worst of the Big Six conferences. That the league doesn’t have a single ranked team is embarrassing, but that fact becomes even more damning in context.
As of Sunday, every other major conference has at least three teams in the top 25. Four of the five have at least two teams in the top 10. The SEC, with only Kentucky at No. 2, is the lone exception, and the Wildcats may move into the top spot now that Syracuse suffered its first loss.
If the Bears played in any of those conferences, there would be more cause for worry.
Losing Solomon does not make the team better, but it also does not make it significantly worst. He was the biggest body on the roster, a lean 6-foot-10 frame that moved more quickly than most his size.
But that size was only useful when it was actually on the court, and Solomon spent this season in and out of the lineup with a suspension and a stress fracture. When he did get playing time, he averaged only six points and six rebounds per game.
Cal is a good team, not a great one. This is the case with or without Solomon.
Luckily, greatness isn’t a prerequisite for winning the Pac-12.