The Bears officially begin practice Friday for what promises to be an intriguing season.
Can they win their second conference title in three seasons? It’s their goal and it’s possible.
I talked recently with coach Mike Montgomery, who laid out what he sees as the team’s biggest challenges and greatest strengths.
“We’d like to plan man defense and I’m concerned we’re not progressing as much as I’d like,” he said. “So we’re going to try to get that to where it’s something we can do effectively.
“I don’t think we board like we should. We need to get more people going more aggressively to the offensive glass and making sure they get their block-offs.”
On the flip side, he continued, “I think offensively, things will take care of themselves. I think we’re better in a lot of different ways. (Allen) Crabbe’s better. We add Justin Cobbs. Brandon (Smith) is better, Jorge (Gutierrez) is better, Richard (Solomon) is better.
“The key thing is Harper (Kamp has) got to stay healthy.”
Clearly, Monty has great respect and affection for Kamp. And why wouldn’t he? The fifth-year senior forward, who has undergone two knee surgeries over the past three seasons, is smart and tough.
When healthy, he’s an excellent player at both ends of the floor.
When not healthy, he’s usually willing to put himself out there, anyway.
“I just really think he deserves to have a healthy year and a productive year,” Montgomery said. “He’s put so much time and energy into it, he just deserves to have the kind of year he’s capable of so people see how good he is.”
With Kamp, Gutierrez, Crabbe and junior point guard Brandon Smith as the nucleus, the Bears figure to go as far as their complementary players allow.
Here are Montgomery’s thoughts on some of those players:
* On whether sophomore Richard Solomon has developed the beginning of a low-post game: “He’s getting better at it. He seemingly understands the value of it. You’ve got more just making the play rather than all the extra stuff. Just finishing the play and getting out of Dodge and getting back on defense. Again, when the game starts, how will that translate?”
* On walkon center Robert Thurman, who showed flashes of potential on the Bears’ recent exhibition tour of northern Europe: “Robert’s improved. He’s a big, strong kid. He’s maybe a shade under 6-10, but he’s 260 and he’s strong. He’s gotten a lot better at simplifying the game. If he gets (the ball) and turns to the basket, he’s pretty effective.
“There’s times in trying to guard the (Joshua) Smith kid at UCLA where his size and bulk might be of value if he knows use it. I wouldn’t say we’re out of the woods on that. If we can get him to play hard and be smart with how he plays — he’s got to be physical, but smart-physical — he’s got the ability to score the ball inside a little bit and rebound the ball. He can help us.”
* On freshman forwards David Kravish and Christian Behrens: “Christian’s coming off knee surgery (during his high school senior season), so he’s missed a lot. He came in here and he was timid. He didn’t trust the knee. He’s picked up 15 pounds, looks pretty good.
“He’s got the knack — we found out in Europe. He has a knack of being around the ball. The last two games we played over there against the Danish national team, we don’t win without David and Christian. They just created a lot of situations getting to the ball. He just needs to get stronger and be a little more aggressive and it’s coming pretty quickly.
“David is a very smart player. You look at the tape and you say, `Gosh, he’s always in the right spot. He always goes to where he’s supposed to.’ But he’s 210 (pounds), so he’ll get bounced out of some of the areas he’s gotten to. Strength will be a factor for him.”
* On junior forward Bak Bak, who did not travel with the team to Europe after spending weeks in Kenya sorting out a passport issue: “It slowed him down. He should have been lifting all summer — that was important — and he was gone. So he came back, he’d lost weight, lost strength.
“He’s just getting back to where he should have been, which is unfortunate for him. We’ve got to get him from being quite so timid. He’s got to go board the ball, got to mix it up, got to get in traffic. He’s pretty skilled. The question is how do you get him confidence? Part of that’s got to come from within. When he loses confidence, things kind of crumble in around him.”
* On whether redshirt freshman wing Alex Rossi is recovering from a lower abdominal muscle injury that forced him to miss all of last season: “Alex is slow coming around. The kid’s just really had a tough time. It was extensive enough, there’s always just a little setback and a little setback. Just when he thinks he’s ready to go, always something happens and he can’t go.
“He’s got to be patient. We’ve got to be patient with him and he’s got to be patient with himself. Otherwise, he’ll just hurt it again and it’ll just be a never-ending thing. We’d like to see what kind of player he is.”
* On how soon sophomore guard Emerson Murray will be fully healthy after having offseason surgery to remove metal plates from his foot: “Emerson will take less time. He’s getting more athletic by the day with that ankle. He’s getting better.”
* On how transfer guard Justin Cobbs can help: “He can play both guards. Justin is strong. He can defend, he can score. His big thing is he kind of loses focus every now and again over what he’s trying to do. But when he’s going, doing the things he’s capable of, he’s real good.”