Montgomery towers over rivalry’s lack of rivalry

Mike Montgomery insists that no one should make a fuss over the Cal-Stanford men’s basketball rivalry.

“It’s not like football,” Cal’s skipper said. “It’s not the Big Game, where you have luncheons six days a week.

“We try not to get too over the top.”

Montgomery never really needed to while at Stanford. And with the Card in the conference cellar the last few years, he hasn’t really had to at Cal so far.

Sunday’s game is different. Sunday’s game means something — more than bragging rights, more than a win. It’s the start of what could be an even rivalry, with both teams in the conference title hunt now and looking to be for years to come.

After years of talented players and little to show for it, Cal is in the national spotlight under Montgomery. In 2009-10, his second year at the helm, the Bears won their first conference championship in 50 years and are currently the front-runners to win it again.

Montgomery has been here before. He brought Stanford prominence two decades ago when he led the Cardinal to 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments from 1995 to 2004. After Montgomery left for the NBA, Trent Johnson guided Stanford to three more, in part using his successor’s recruits.
Since that Sweet Sixteen squad, Stanford has been silent. Johnson skipped town, and Johnny Dawkins arrived with little fanfare and fewer wins — until now.

Make no mistake: the Cardinal are not the powerhouse they were under Montgomery, but they are as competitive in the conference as they’ve been in the last four years. An NCAA tournament is not a given — not for the current third-place team in what is turning out to be a continually weak conference — but Dawkins has a talented core with abundant potential.

The Cardinal trot out a series of athletic wings and mobile bigs. Stanford’s strength is in its depth — the Cardinal go as many as 12-deep some games.

Montgomery, meanwhile, has molded Cal into his team, his program — the way he did for 18 years at Stanford.

Take Justin Cobbs, for example. The sophomore transfer seemed out of control at times to start the season, but has quickly blossomed into a Montgomery-style point guard: controlling tempo, passing before shooting, playing tough defense.

Jorge Gutierrez is the epitome of a Montgomery player — someone who would seemingly rather take a charge than a three. Harper Kamp is an undersized power forward, but he has the footwork and course sense to make up for it.

Players have transitioned seamlessly under Montgomery. Gutierrez took on the burden of scoring after the graduation of 2010 Pac-12 Player of the Year Jerome Randle. After Gary Franklin transferred to Baylor early last year, Allen Crabbe blossomed into a top-flight 3-point shooter and the conference’s best freshman.

Now it’s Robert Thurman’s turn. The walk-on junior did not expect to see much game action this season — or any season.

“Honestly, I thought my role was just going to be a practice player and just be a college student,” Thurman said.

But Richard Solomon’s academic ineligibility opened up an opportunity for Thurman. The 6-foot-10 forward took advantage, scoring a career-high 16 points last Thursday in a crucial road win.
Cal will need production from Thurman off the bench to match Stanford’s deep bench. But he won’t be the reason the Bears win.

The reason will be the guy in the suit and tie.