I chatted a couple weeks ago with Justin Cobbs, who suggested something I wouldn’t have considered: This Cal basketball team can be better than last year.
Imagine — even without Pac-12 Player of the Year Jorge Gutierrez and fellow graduated senior Harper Kamp — the Bears perhaps exceeding last year’s 24-10 record and runnerup conference finish?
So, the Bears could be better than a year ago?
“We could be,” coach Mike Montgomery said. “We have the ability to do some more things. It’s the end of the game thing. Who wins it for you at the end? Who steps up? There’s a lot of teams that are pretty good, but when the going gets tough we’re going to have to figure that out.”
There are lots of factors involved — including, obviously, how the rest of the Pac-12 evolves. Montgomery said from Cal’s perspective the notion depends on replacing the contributions of Gutierrez and Kamp that don’t show in the statistics.
“We lost a lot of character,” Montgomery said. “We’ll have talent. Allen (Crabbe) and Justin (Cobbs) and Richard (Solomon) and (David) Kravish and Brandon (Smith) — five guys that have all started at some point.
“We’re going to have to figure out a way to make up for the character of the two guys we lost, who were high-character guys. If there was ever a rebound at the end of the game that we needed, Jorge would go get it.
“And Harper was a smart player. He helped David Kravish immeasurably in terms of his presence in there, his maturity.”
Kamp was a natural leader — smart, vocal, selfless, willing to tell his teammates what he needed from them. Gutierrez, at first anyway, was far from that. Because he didn’t speak much English immediately, he was far quieter, less likely to say something to his teammates. Gradually, that changed, to the point where Gutierrez complemented Kamp, giving Montgomery two excellent senior leaders.
There is no clear replacement for either of them. Cobbs is the most obvious candidate, as the starting point guard and one of the team’s best players. But he’s still becoming the player Montgomery wants, and not yet a guy who can be Monty’s alter-ego on the floor.
Smith has the personality for it and is one of the team’s hardest-working players, but he’s coming off a disappointing junior season on the heels of a surprising sophomore campaign. And he’s likely to be in the starting lineup only until Ricky Kreklow recovers from foot surgery in a couple months.
Crabbe, the Bears’ most talented player, is not inclined to be a spokesman, but may be ready to begin asserting himself a bit more.
“I had probably the best conversation I’ve ever had the other day with Allen,” Montgomery told me. “Just about stuff. He’s so much more relaxed. He feels good about himself. He’s stronger.
“He said, `The best decision I ever made was to stay here this summer.’ ”
Montgomery said the team’s strength coaches virtually forced Crabbe and other veterans to take on leadership roles during the summer.
“Allen’s been great. At one time I think he would have been embarrassed about it. But he’s done that. It’s just not his nature,” Montgomery said. “It’s a thing he’s probably aware of to move to the next level, which is certainly is his goal.
“He’s got to be more aggressive. He’s got to make some plays that will be maybe uncharacteristic of him of what he’s done so far. I think we’ll see more of that.”
Here’s Montgomery on other players on his roster:
— On Cobbs, the Minnesota transfer who took over as starting point guard last season: “Justin’s better. It’s been a process with Justin, but he wants to be good.”
— On Smith, the former De La Salle High standout: “Brandon’s off-court life is different than the rest of the guys. Brandon is very, very religious and spends a lot of time with the church away from the team in the off-season. Makes it a little more difficult for him.
“Brandon is in terrific shape and he’s a tough kid. So we’re hoping that he builds on two years ago when he was our leader and does the right stuff.”
— On Kravish, a surprise as a freshman and a starter by mid-season: “David was just a 195-pound freshman. He’s 220 now and he’s on the verge of being pretty good.”
— On Solomon, the 6-foot-10 junior post who missed the second half of last season after being ruled academically ineligible: “Richard grew up. That ineligibility hurt him. Rather than blame anyone else, he took the responsibility for it. I think he’s really matured through it. He’s been great. Richard’s improved.”
— OnTyrone Wallace, the freshman combo guard: “Right now probably looking at Tyrone Wallace playing with (the guards) in some sort of a combination. We like Tyrone Wallace, but he’s a freshman and has a lot to learn.”