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May 21, 2008
Montgomery could be huge hire for Cal
Of the 42 coaching changes in college basketball this offseason, a strong case can be made that California made the biggest upgrade.
Previous coach Ben Braun wasn't doing a bad job. In fact, during his 12 seasons in Berkeley, Braun won nearly 60 percent of his games and took the Bears to five NCAA Tournaments. And Braun didn't have any trouble landing another coaching job: Less than two weeks after he was fired by Cal, he took over the reins at Rice.
But Braun's resume, like those of most Division I coaches, pales in comparison to that of his replacement.
Mike Montgomery ranked among the elite coaches in the college ranks when he left Stanford to coach the NBA's Golden State Warriors in 2004. Montgomery, 61, had taken Stanford to 10 consecutive NCAA Tournaments at the time (before his arrival in 1986, Stanford had made one NCAA appearance). During that run, the Cardinal became a national power. Stanford put together three 30-plus-win seasons - including 1997-98, when Montgomery led the school to its first Final Four in 56 years. He was selected national coach of the year twice and Pac-10 coach of the year four times.
When the Warriors fired Montgomery in 2006 after back-to-back 34-48 seasons, speculation was that he would return to the college game. Montgomery's name was linked to virtually every big-name job that came open – and some that didn't. But he didn't interview once.
Then, 11 days after Cal dumped Braun, Montgomery took the job at Cal. School officials had interviewed Denver Nuggets assistant Mike Dunlap (now on Arizona's staff), Nevada coach Mark Fox and Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett.
But Montgomery stayed put and says that, ironically, he has found exactly what he was waiting for an hour from Stanford's rival.
"I didn't necessarily miss coaching at first, but the last year I really felt something was missing," Montgomery said. "I really missed working with young people. But I knew that I didn't want to take over a team that was going to be rebuilding. I didn't want to start over from scratch again. I wanted a chance to compete and win immediately.
"This Cal team was right on the verge last year. They were hurt by some injuries and some bad breaks. Ben did a good job here, and there is a lot of experience coming back."
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Cal played the entire year without starting guard Theo Robertson, who took a medical redshirt because of a hip injury. Robertson averaged 8.6 points and 4.4 rebounds in 2006-07. The Bears also were part of a remarkably strong Pac-10, which sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament and had a seventh (Arizona State) narrowly miss an at-large bid.
"It's the best I have ever seen the league from top to bottom," said Montgomery, who worked as a TV analyst on several Pac-10 games this past season. "It's been as strong at the top before, but never so deep, and you really judge the strength of a league on its depth. I said all year that a good team was going to finish in ninth place."
That probably won't be the case in 2008-09. No league may be losing as much as the Pac-10: At least seven league teams are losing their leading scorers.
That number could rise to eight if Cal forward Ryan Anderson stays in the draft. Anderson, a 6-foot-10 sophomore who was the league's leading scorer (21.1 ppg) and third-leading rebounder (9.9 rpg), entered the draft without an agent two days before Montgomery was hired. Montgomery has made it clear which route he wants Anderson to take.
"He's really up on my staying around," Anderson said. "He feels the team can be great next year with all the guys we have coming back and all the guys who are leaving the Pac-10. He told me, 'I can help you improve your game and improve the team.' "
Anderson is projected as an early second-round pick and has until June 16 to withdraw from the draft.
"I'm not sure what he wants exactly, whether he is looking to get drafted in a certain position or just wants to go," Montgomery said. "I don't think there's any doubt he can improve by coming back."
Anderson admits that the chance to play for Montgomery is enticing, saying he is the ideal leader for the Bears.
"Coach Montgomery is a great guy and a great coach," Anderson said. "That makes the decision that much harder. He's a disciplinarian, which is exactly the kind of guy we need. Coach Braun did a great job, but there were a couple of things that needed to be tightened up. I think Coach Montgomery can come and finish the work that has been started. He can get guys to work better defensively and accept their roles."
The rest of the team also is impressed with Montgomery, but not necessarily for the most obvious reasons.
"One of the most important things to say about him is that besides all the wins that he has, he hasn't had a player transfer in all of his years of coaching," said junior-to-be Jamal Boykin, who transferred to Cal from Duke two years ago. "That's really big. That's the ultimate respect for a coach, to go through your whole career without having one player transfer."
Few coaches with Montgomery's kind of experience can say that. He has been a college head coach for 26 years – 18 at Stanford and eight at Montana. Unlike at his previous two stops, Montgomery inherits a solid amount of talent and experience at Cal. Even if Anderson doesn't stay in school, five players who were part of Braun's eight-man rotation are returning.
That group includes two junior guards who averaged in double figures. Patrick Christopher, a former top-50 prospect, was one of the nation's most-improved players, raising his scoring average from 5.1 points per game to 15.2, which ranked 10th in the Pac-10. Jerome Randle averaged 11.8 points and a team-high 3.7 assists. The Bears also are adding four-star guard D.J. Seeley, the No. 58 prospect in the class of 2008.
While Randle struggled with his decision-making – he had more turnovers than assists in 10 games and posted a lackluster 1.2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio – it's painfully clear Montgomery's biggest priority is fixing Cal's defense. While the Bears ranked second in the Pac-10 in scoring (76.4 ppg), they also ranked last in scoring defense (75.1 ppg) and steals (4.1 per game) and eighth in field-goal percentage defense (44.9 percent).
Montgomery, whose teams led the Pac-10 in points allowed seven times at Stanford and were first in field-goal percentage defense five times, said he isn't familiar enough with his personnel to know what kind of defense he will run or the style of play. But it's clear he has high expectations.
"I expect us to be winners," Montgomery said. "I expect people to look at Cal basketball as we're walking through the airport or these kids walk across campus. I expect people to look at them with a little bit of respect and awe."
Montgomery doesn't have to worry about that himself. He's already earned the "respect and awe" treatment from his new players and peers.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.