Friday, January 2, 2009

Montgomery has Bears playing with passion and precision in win over Arizona

Take Lute Olson away from Arizona. Bring Mike Montgomery to Cal. What do you get?

You got your answer Friday night at Haas Pavilion.

Montgomery’s Bears opened the Pac-10 season with a 69-55 victory over a once mighty Arizona team that missed Olson last year when he took a “temporary” leave and miss him even more this year now that he has retired.

Yeah, you may get sick of hearing Dick Vitale talk and talk then talk some more about the importance of coaching in college basketball. But Vitale and his fellow talking heads have a point. A great college coach can transform a team and an entire program.

This is basically the same Cal team that struggled last season in Ben Braun’s final season. Well, the same team minus its best player, Ryan Anderson, currently earning a living in the NBA, and center DeVon Hardin.

Montgomery has the Bears playing with passion, intensity and intelligence.

“Coach Montgomery has brought a discipline to them that has really turned them into a good team,” Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell said.

The Bears had lost four straight and 18 of 20 games to Arizona before Friday night. During his final nine seasons at Stanford, Montgomery was 9-9 against Arizona. Now he’s won 10 of his past 19 games against the Wildcats.

“I think this validates we can play in this league,” Montgomery said.

It’s not as if the Bears haven’t had talent in the past. But players such as point guard Jerome Randle and shooting guard Patrick Christopher have flourished under Montgomery. They’ve bought what he’s selling about the importance of defense. And on the offensive end, they’ve found the proper balance of aggression and control.

Randle entered the game averaging a team-best 19.5 points per game and scored 14 against Arizona. But with Warriors executive vice president Chris Mullin watching from a courtside seat, it was Christopher who put on the most dazzling show.

Christopher scored a game-high 23 points, three shy of his career-high, mixing laser-like jump shots and acrobatic dunks. When he wasn’t scoring, Christopher was selling out on the other end, playing tough defense against both swingman Chase Budinger and point guard Nick Wise.

Budinger came into the game averaging 17.7 points and finished with just 9 on 4 of 16 shooting. Arizona was once one of the deepest teams in the country before Olson’s departure caused the talent pipeline to run dry. Now, if Budinger, Wise or center Jordan Hill has an off night, the Wildcats are in trouble.

“That intensity sparked our offensive game,” Christopher said of the Bears’ defense.

It took a while for the Bears to get going on offense, but in the second half they sliced apart Arizona’s 1-1-3 zone as if it consisted of five mannequins.

More often than not, one of the Bears’ forwards (usually Harper Kamp) took a pass near the free throw line, turned and hit a wide-open teammate (usually Christopher) cutting hard to the basket for an easy score. Kamp led the Bears with five assists.

“That was coach’s idea to put me up there,” Kamp said. “Whichever forward caught it up there, the idea was to turn and find the open man. My teammates made it easy for me. They’re great finishers.”

Montgomery, now a true believer in man-to-man defense, said he used to use the 1-1-3 zone and had a good idea how to attack it.

“We knew the middle was open,” Montgomery said. “From that point you do get cutters.”

“They definitely had a good game plan,” Pennell said.

The Bears improved to 12-2 under Montgomery. And with the Pac-10 decidedly weaker than it’s been for a few years, the Bears have a great chance to finish in the upper tier in the conference and notch 20-plus wins for the season. That’s the recipe for an NCAA Tournament berth.

If Braun were still Cal’s coach, I have a feeling we’d be hearing a lot from him about the losses of Anderson and Hardin and the Bears’ lack of size. I doubt if we’d be talking about a passionate, disciplined Cal team that’s a legitimate contender for an NCAA Tournament berth.

After the game, Kamp was asked about Montgomery’s impact.

“He just gives us confidence,” Kamp said. “We go in the huddle and come out with confidence every time.”

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