I took my first look at new Cal coach Mike Montgomery’s team Thursday night when the Bears played a non-conference game at Haas Pavilion against the University of Texas-Pan American. Not familiar with the UTPA Broncs? It’s a hoops “power” from Edinburg, about as far south as you can go in Texas before reaching Mexico.
Cal built a 39-25 halftime lead and won 85-58. Yeah, not much of a game, but it gave me a chance to make a few snap judgments about Montgomery’s Bears:
Snap judgment No. 1? These guys can shoot. The Bears shot 67.9 percent from the field, nearly breaking the school mark of 68.5. That type of shooting will keep the Bears in a lot of games this year, despite their lack of size.
Jamal Boykin made 8 of 9 shots, Jerome Randle 4 of 5, Theo Robertson 4 of 6 and Patrick Christopher 5 of 8. Sure, they made those shots against an overmatched team, but they made those shots.
“I don’t know if they could shoot the ball better if there was no defense out there,” UTPA coach Tom Schuberth said. “I think Cal can be a special team. … I think they’re great shooters and unselfish. They have a lot of weapons.”
For the season, Cal is shooting 56.6 percent from the field and 59.0 percent from 3-point range.
“We do shoot the ball,” Montgomery said. “You don’t guard our guys, they’re going to shoot it in. … You’re not surprised because you watch them every day in practice. There’s going to be a point in time where we’re going to have to rely on our execution to get those shots.”
The Bears’ flashed some glimpses of the hard-nosed, man-to-man defense Montgomery is teaching them to play. Considering the Bears’ defensive meltdown last year, this is exactly what they needed, some firm advice from a coach known for defense.
The Bears forced 21 turnovers, 12 in the first half. But they also let the Broncos shoot 55 percent in the first half. In other words, this is a work in progress.
Are the Bears buying into what Montgomery is preaching about the importance of defense?
“Trying,” Montgomery said. “Slowly but surely. There’s an old saying, though, ‘If he doesn’t buy it as a pup, he ain’t going to buy it as a dog.’ So it’s not going to be something like you say, ‘Defense is important.’ ‘Ohhhh. Geeze. I didn’t know that.’ It’s a process. It takes a while. And ideally if a guy’s really bad you’re going to have to set him down, just get somebody else in there who will defend. But to do that you’ve got to find somebody that can defend.”
What’s Montgomery teaching?
“Just real defense,” Christopher said. “Hard-nose. Keeping your man in front of you. Team defense.”
“Taking it personal if your man scores on you is a huge key,” Boykin said. “So is a sense of pride on the defensive end. We protect our basket. If a man scores on you, you should take that personally.”
Montgomery was happy to hear what Boykin had said. But he knows actions are more important than words.
“Good defense takes time,” Montgomery said. “It takes time. It takes years. Even though they’re juniors, if they haven’t had that mentality, it’s going to take a while to get that. It doesn’t take away anything from offense. They’re two different ends of the floor.
“You cross the defensive end and you become a sumo wrestler. You become a street fighter. You go to the offensive end, then you become a virtuoso on the piano. It’s just finesse vs. effort, and you’ve got to have that mentality.”
Freshman guard Jorge Gutierrez, Montgomery’s first recruit, is going to add a dose of hard-nosed toughness to this offensive-minded team. A freshman from Mexico, who attended high school in Nevada, Gutierrez came off the bench and instantly ratcheted up the intensity.
“I think Jorge’s giving us something that’s pretty good for us,” Montgomery said. “He’s just a tough kid, going on the floor. It’s infectious.”
Gutierrez isn’t flashy, but he’s smart and, as Montgomery said, tough.
Forward Theo Robertson has always had a nice shooting stroke. But if Thursday night’s game offers a clue, his shot is even smoother now after his long layoff. He looks like a guy who spent, oh, say, a few thousand hours working on his shot last season when he was sidelined, recovering from hip surgery.
In the first half alone, Robertson scored eight points on 3 of 4 shooting and made 2 of 3 from beyond the arc. He drained a 20-foot jumper off the dribble to give Cal a 7-6 lead. Later in the half, he drained a 3 from the left wing. Then he buried another trey from just beyond top of the key. He finished with 10 points on 4 of 6 shooting.
Robertson entered the game shooting .464 from the field and .636 from 3-point range. Robertson’s outside shot is going to come in particularly handy when opponents try to zone the Bears.
Robertson is already considered the Bears’ best defensive player. If he keeps filling up the hoop, he’s headed for a monster season, which would be well deserved after what he’s been through.
Max Zhang, a 7-3 red-shirt freshman from China, saw a few minutes of action. From what I saw, he’s still incredibly raw and a long ways away from helping the Bears, but he’s also surprisingly agile getting up and down the court for someone so tall.
Zhang blocked two shots and scored four points. But he didn’t grab a single rebound, and he fouled out in eight minutes.
At only 225 pounds, Zhang is a stick. But who knows? If he gains a few pounds and gets stronger, he could help some day, especially on defense as a shot blocker. He’s already a crowd favorite, but fans had better hope for more blowouts if they want to see him play this year.