Before taking some post-hoops time off, here is the final installment of my five-part preview of the 2009-10 Bears by position. I’ll check in from time to time the next couple weeks if there is news to report. Otherwise, adios for now.
RETURNING: Jerome Randle, Jorge Gutierrez, Nikola Knezevic
LEAVING: No one
ARRIVING: Brandon Smith
Randle was among the most-improved players in the Pac-10 this season. His decision making was far better and he became an offensive force, averaging 18.4 points and 5.0 assists. His shooting range was almost limitless and he made a school-record total of 82 3-pointers on the way to earning first-team all-Pac-10 honors.
Without much question, Randle was the Bears’ most indispensible player.
Still, there are ways he can and must be better. Coach Mike Montgomery has said Randle cannot fully develop as the Bears’ leader until he becomes a better defender. Even at (barely) 5-foot-10, Randle has the quickness to be a factor at the defensive end if he puts his mind to it.
Gutierrez, shuffled between the point and shooting guard his freshman season, would be the apparent choice as Randle’s backup, except the Bears may need him more off the ball, where their depth is less. Gutierrez is a fearless penetrator, but sometimes dribbles his way into a deadend. A relentless defender, his offensive game still needs much polish.
Senior-to-be Nikola Knezevic played sporadically this season, although he delivered two big 3-pointers to help fuel a comeback in the late-season win at Arizona. Even so, he is not a good shooter, but works hard on defense and has not slacked off in practice, despite limited game-day opportunity.
“He had a great attitude,” Montgomery said. “He gave us a little bit of this, a little bit of that. He’s got to find some place where he can bring something special to help us. That’s his challenge this spring.”
The wildcard in the point-guard picture is incoming freshman Brandon Smith of De La Salle High. Compact but physical, Smith is a pure point guard who rarely worries about scoring the ball. But if he can take on ballhandling and defensive responsibilities, it may allow Montgomery to use Gutierrez more at shooting guard, where the Bears are thinner.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Bears hope Randle can make another leap forward and become a truly complete floor leader. Gutierrez is a budding team leader because of his hard-nosed dedication to the less-than-glamorous aspects of the game. Knezevic must make strides or face the possibility of sinking to the No. 4 spot on the point guard ladder behind Smith.