It was hard to take an objective look at the Cal men's basketball season during the immediate aftermath of a play-in flame-out. Now that it's been a few weeks, surely time has healed all wounds...or not. Fortunately, Cal fans are a sturdy breed of Bear and are well-versed in the cycle of recovery and selective amnesia.
Let's rip the bandages off and get right to it:
Prior to the season, the experts were near-unanimous in their punditry that Cal would contend for a top-3 finish in the league with UW, UCLA, and AZ in the mix. (Despite the fact that this is a Golden Bear write-up, it is still perfectly acceptable to take a brief moment to smirk at the misfortunes of our self-important southern annex.)
The Blueprints to a Title:
With four returning starters, including five of our top six players from the previous year, we looked to have a good blend of experience and talent. Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp were two of the the top returning scorers in the conference. Brandon Smith had been steady at the point and showed signs of an improving outside shot. Allen Crabbe was the reigning Freshman POY, and Richard Solomon looked to fill in for Markhuri Sanders-Frison with a more imposing defensive presence thanks to his length and athleticism.
Touted Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs had turned heads in practice while sitting out a year. He was slated to bring his combo guard skills off the bench as a dynamic sixth man who could back-up Jorge, Smith, and Crabbe. Emerson Murray would be a defensive pest and use his quickness in spot relief duty. Bak Bak would finally take the next step as an upperclassman and Robert Thurman would evolve into a classic Monty big man. A healthy Alex Rossi would tag-team with Jeff Powers as sharpshooting reserves. Frosh Christian Behrens would blue-shirt while any production from fellow youngster David Kravish would be considered found money. By all appearances, this would be the deepest rotation that Monty has had at Cal and would allow him to substitute based on match-ups as well as go back to his preferred man to man defense.
Not Exactly According to Plan:
Richard Solomon got himself suspended, injured, and then was lost for the year due to academic ineligibility. His loss greatly affected our post defense and rebounding while also putting inordinate pressure on Harper Kamp on both ends. Besides throwing the big man rotation into flux, we often found ourselves facing a match-up disadvantage in the post.
Brandon Smith struggled against more athletic teams and lost his starting job to Justin Cobbs. Unfortunately, this move snowballed into a loss of confidence. As Smith started trying to do too much in order to make something happen in limited minutes, his struggles worsened. In effect, this became the equivalent of losing another key rotation player which forced Monty to ride his starting backcourt for heavy minutes.
Bak Bak got stuck abroad due to a passport issue and missed the team's Eurotrip. He seemed to be behind the eight-ball from the beginning and never rounded into form.
Emerson Murray was also unable to build Monty's confidence to where he earned consistent minutes. Whether this was due to a lack of development, or a deliberate coaching decision to ride the starters all the way to a title is still unknown.
Alex Rossi never fully recovered from his sports hernia and was a non-factor.
Christian Behrens injured his ankle early, then recovered to where Monty elected to burn his blue-shirt. Unfortunately, despite glimpses of potential, he didn't develop quickly enough to work himself into the rotation.
With the Golden Bear starters playing heavy minutes and minimal production off the bench, the team stumbled at the end and missed out on a chance to win the regular season title. Allen Crabbe suffered through foot/ankle issues as well as a debilitating bout with shingles. Jorge lost confidence in his outside shot and started pressing. Whether it was from tired legs, or some bizarre team-wide loss of mojo, the efficient Cal offense gave way to unforced turnovers and contested jumpshots. Without a consistent perimeter threat, teams were able to adapt by chasing Crabbe off the three-point line and overplaying Jorge off the curl to deny any forays to the basket.
It was an inexplicable, surprising, and troubling end to what was otherwise a solid season.
What Went Right:
When healthy, Allen Crabbe asserted himself within the offense and lead the team in scoring. Jorge won the Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year conference awards for his all-around play and impact on the game. Justin Cobbs had some inconsistencies with his shot selection and decision-making. But for a blueshirt sophomore, he generally played very well and showed a lot of potential. David Kravish played beyond years as a true frosh. Normally, most bigs take a least a year if not several to adapt to Division I competition. David did take his lumps at times in the post, but he otherwise held his own admirably. Robert Thurman emerged as a nice complement in the post. He showed a knack for moving without the ball and a deft touch in the post. Harper Kamp was rock-solid all year long. Despite early concerns regarding his knees, he was the one Bear who seemed to get stronger and played his best ball down the stretch.
If you had told me that we'd lose our starting center and point guard, yet still be in contention for the conference title, I would nodded coolly and muttered some platitude about Monty knowing how to chew gum, kick *ss, and coach some ball. Had you told me before the season that it would come down to the last regular season game to win or lose the title, and that we'd earn ourselves a NCAA berth, I would felt that it was successful campaign. And yet, I find myself unable to escape the ghosts of what-might-have-been.
Even so, what's important is to look back on this year with fondness and appreciation for our departing seniors. I chose to remember Harper Kamp using smarts and toughness to outplay taller guys on a nightly basis. For a man whose career was temporarily side-tracked by serious knee issues, it is truly commendable to see how he battled back and elevated his game.
And if you don't get chills thinking of "Hip, Hip...Jorge!" echoing through the Haas, seek help immediately. From a wild ball of energy who famously tried to cover the entire furd team as a true frosh to a fierce senior leader who could take over a game without scoring a single point, Jorge moves on as an all-time Cal favorite.
Both of these student-athletes were great representatives for our university and will be sorely missed. Best wishes to each of them in their future endeavors.
Coming soon, we'll take an early look at next year's team.