Oct. 27, 2009
BERKELEY (AP) -In one year, Mike Montgomery took California from ninth place in the Pac-10 to the NCAA tournament.
He had hoped for a quick turnaround in his first season leading the Golden Bears, and Cal's rapid strides even surprised those who know Montgomery's remarkable record and reputation as a winning coach during nearly two decades at rival Stanford.
The Bears won 22 games and placed third in the conference, five spots higher than they were picked to finish. And that's after the program lost reigning Pac-10 scoring leader Ryan Anderson early to the NBA.
Montgomery isn't about to get giddy.
"One year does not a program make," he said. "Now we've got some attention and we're getting a better reception on the recruiting trail. People are paying little more attention. You have to be there consistently. Kids see it, they see you on television, they see you in the NCAA tournament and see kids coming out and going to the NBA. All those things are what kids look at these days."
A coach with such a successful track record helps, too. Cal is expected to be in The Associated Press preseason poll for the first time since 1995-96. Before that, its best preseason ranking was sixth in 1993 at the start of Jason Kidd's sophomore season.
People are paying attention to this program again in a place where football has ruled in recent years. A professor Jamal Boykin doesn't have as an instructor even stopped the forward with some encouraging words.
"He said, 'I'm happy that the way you're playing on the court reflects the type of people you are,"' Boykin recalled. "I thought that was a very nice comment. Recruits seem to be a little more excited to be on campus. That comes along with having a ranking, going to the tournament and having the potential to go further this year."
In the club room at Haas Pavilion, used for pregame gatherings and meals, Boykin high-fives a passer-by. Theo Robertson gets stopped from time to time, too.
This is exactly the kind of vibe Montgomery knew Cal could have, eventually.
Montgomery spent much of his initial work last season teaching, starting with basic fundamentals, and getting his players to buy into a new system. There was a lot of work to do - and there still is, especially on defense.
Somehow, he found a way to get the most from his starters to the last man on the bench.
Montgomery had been doing TV work for two years before Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour hired him to replace the fired Ben Braun. That followed Montgomery's two forgettable seasons coaching the Golden State Warriors. He had led Stanford to the second round of the NCAA tournament for 10 straight seasons before leaving for the NBA.
Many questioned why he made the leap to the pros in the first place, but Montgomery is as competitive as they get and he wanted to see if he could do it.
But the fit was wrong, from the frantic pace to the egos and economics.
The season before he came aboard in Berkeley, in Braun's 12th and final year, the Bears went 17-16 overall and just 6-12 in the Pac-10.
Montgomery immediately got back to basics with a team that has lost its share of close games in recent seasons because it couldn't make a key stop in crunch time. Just as it was at Stanford, Montgomery knows Cal won't surprise anybody now that it's a top team in the conference.
"Now, it's, 'Hey, we've got a chance to be pretty good.' I'm not sure they've totally got that yet," Montgomery said. "We got little bit complacent at the end of last season. We can't take anything for granted."
Cal has nearly its entire roster back from last season. Montgomery believes his players' hard work in the weight room and added strength will translate to better play on the court.
"I think we're going to be ahead, but it's still organized chaos," he said. "We're in better shape. It's just maturity. A year helps most people. Everybody has a little better idea what we're doing. The question marks that might have existed have gone away in terms of, 'OK, we're on the right track here. We've got the right people in charge. We've got the right mix of veterans."'
Boykin and Robertson won't be happy with anything less than a return trip to the tournament. Advancing past the first round is the next order of business for this bunch.
The Bears lost 84-71 to Maryland in their NCAA opener last March.
"We're not satisfied with just having one good season," Robertson said. "Toward the end of last year we kind of leveled out a bit. In that respect we have something to prove there. Trying to get back to the tournament is going to be a huge challenge and then the goal is to advance. If we want to be the team that everyone says we are, that's what we have to do."