It's often easy to forget that basketball is, after all, just a game. One moment that helped put everything in perspective occurred before last season when legendary Cal coach Mike Montgomery was diagnosed with cancer.
One year after a cancer scare, life is good for Cal basketball coach Mike Montgomery. He is healthy, on the verge of signing an excellent recruiting class and ready to begin practice with a team expected to compete near the top of the Pac-12 Conference.
The mood was different at this time last year.
"It's frightening, especially when something comes from nowhere," said Montgomery, 65, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer just before the start of practice last season.
He underwent surgery Oct. 19 and was declared cancer-free and was able to work the entire season. But
Montgomery knows it could have gone the other way.
"It's taken out of your hands. You're at the mercy of this thing," Montgomery said. "It could have been that I had no control. You just don't know what's going to happen.
As a major relief to the Golden Bear community, Montgomery's surgery was a success and he is now cancer-free. Obviously, the most important aspect of this sequence of events was the health of Coach Montgomery. However, this health scare also made Cal fans reflect and realize how lucky we are to have such a terrific leader at the helm of the basketball program in Berkeley. Recruits are also starting to notice that there is a potential powerhouse brewing in Haas, and it looks like Montgomery, having signed an extension through the 2015-2016 season, is finally starting to gain some much-needed recruiting momentum starting with the exciting 2013 recruiting class.
Looking ahead to the 2012-2013 campaign, the Bears, with the return of Richard Solomon and the addition of skilled freshman guard Tyrone Wallace, should have enough talent to bridge the gap after the departures of Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp. However, one obvious question mark is leadership, as Gutierrez and Kamp were undoubtedly the leaders of last year's squad in every sense of the term.
Among the many things on Mike Montgomery's to-do list between now and the start of college basketball season next month is to find a heart and soul.
Not for himself. Presumably, the Cal coach has that covered.
With team leaders Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp graduated out of the program, Montgomery needs to determine who his stalwarts will be for 2012-13, those players whose style and personalities inspire their teammates.
"I don't know where that's going to come from," the coach said. "We lost a lot of character, a lot of heart in Jorge and Harper. You don't know where the replacement is going to come from until it arrives."
Two obvious candidates to fill this potential leadership void are rising juniors Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe. Of the two, Cobbs is more assertive, taking over stretches of some games, truly acting the part of floor general. Crabbe, though quiet, can certainly lead by example, as the preseason all Pac-12 pick is one of the more talented players out West. Also, don't forget about 6'11" center Robert Thurman, a rising senior who should earn major minutes after impressing last season. "Big Rob" possesses a naturally vocal and inspiring personality, and could also be a leader Montgomery will look at to guide the younger players.
Mike Montgomery, despite his admission about missing the leadership of Gutierrez and Kamp, certainly possesses an optimism (albeit a reserved and cautious optimism, as is typical with the head man in Berkeley) about the upcoming season, due to Cal's returning and incoming talent.
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...
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."
- On Tyrone 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."
Cal certainly has the talent to compete at the top of the Pac-12 conference. Beyond the obvious contributors of Crabbe, Cobbs, and Kravish, Mike Montgomery certainly has some other pieces to work with. Incoming freshman Tyrone Wallace is a very skilled player, a former top-100 recruit, who should make an immediate impact, especially in the wake Kreklow injury. Brandon Smith flashed his leadership potential two seasons ago, but took a step back during the 2011-2012 campaign. Ricky Kreklow, who redshirted during his transfer year last season, impressed in practices, and should start for the Golden Bears once he returns from injury. In the frontcourt, Richard Solomon's return will greatly help ease the loss of Harper Kamp and Richard Thurman is ready for some meaningful minutes. The Bears, though not extremely deep by any means, are looking solid from a talent perspective.
Finally, we'll leave you with this video featuring clips from the first practice of the season, including interviews with Coach Montgomery, guard Tyrone Wallace, and forward Bak Bak. Though there might be some question marks with the state of the squad going into the season, there is an undeniable sense of optimism in the air inside of Haas Pavilion.