BERKELEY – Just in case Mike Montgomery had forgotten who Christian Behrens was before three debilitating knee injuries, the 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore figured he’d re-introduce himself to his head coach.
“I just wanted to reach out to Coach and let him know that I’m ready to be pushed and I’m ready to be evaluated from this point on because I feel good – not evaluated on my past and always trying to play catch-up,” Behrens said. “I just wanted to get a fresh start and just go out there and show him what I can do.”
So Behrens visited Montgomery in his office the day after Christmas and asked him for a clean slate.
“He just came in and said that he hasn’t been playing hard enough, that he’s been using his knee as an excuse,”’ Montgomery said. “He understands that. He asked if we could start with a clean slate. I said sure, but I said the proof is going to be in the pudding. You saying that doesn’t mean anything to me unless you go follow it up.”
The pudding has been pretty revealing. Behrens has worked himself into the regular playing rotation and has played a significant role off the bench in helping the Bears to a 3-0 start to Pac-12 play heading into tonight’s matchup against Washington at Haas Pavilion. In three conference games, Behrens is averaging 3.7 rebounds in 11.3 minutes per game.
“I just figured that I would let him know that I am feeling good,” Behrens said. “Of course, the coaches are trying to protect me a little bit. They don’t know my body like I do, so I felt like it was necessary to tell him where I was at. It was necessary to go to him and tell him that I feel good, and that I want him to evaluate me on me feeling good, because that’s the way I’m going to be playing from here on out.”
Behrens said his health turned the corner after the Bears returned from the Maui Invitational in November. The soreness after a long, hard practice was dissipating. He could practice multiple times at full pace and have minimal or no soreness at all.
“He had won a sprint that week in practice,” Montgomery said. “He had done a couple things where you kind of looked and said, ‘I haven’t seen him do that before.’ He’s obviously moving better. He doesn’t need to do more than what he is capable of.”
Behrens knee problems began as a junior at Tahoma High School in Washington when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a game against Kentwood High. He returned in time for his senior season, but sprained the same ligament as a freshman at Cal. Behrens played sparingly on a knee brace the rest of that season, knowing that the ligament was not fully healthy and the potential for needing surgery again someday was real.
Behrens started to feel better at the beginning of his sophomore season and got into seven of Cal’s first 11 games. But during a practice in late December, he completely tore the ACL again.
“I could tell right away something happened,” Behrens said. “They told me it was completely torn. The second time is different. That was tough having to go through all that.
“After the first surgery, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come back. When it happened the second time, there was no doubt in my mind I was coming back. I was ready to have a healthy knee. I was ready to have a strong ACL, go out there and rehab and get to a point where my knee is 100 percent.”
Now, Behrens is being evaluated on something other than his health. Instead of proving that he can play, he is now set out to prove how well he can play. His production since turning the health corner has been a welcome development for a team lacking depth in the front court.
“Obviously, I want to come to my full potential,” Behrens said. “I’m nowhere near that right now. I have to get comfortable scoring the ball, getting back to making plays like I know I can. Basically, it’s just me trying to reach my ceiling, and see where it takes me. I’m nowhere near it right now. I feel good, but this is just my foot in the door.”