BERKELEY, Calif. -- California coach
"We can't eliminate the post guy from our offense," Montgomery said. "We become too one-dimensional."
That, in a nutshell, sums up the state of Cal basketball. Even a doltish sportswriter could figure out that when you lead the nation in three-point shooting and still lose by 13 points (to Maryland) in the first round of the NCAA tournament, you probably don't have much of an inside game. The good news for Cal is that it returns four senior starters from the team that finished tied for third in the Pac-10. The bad news is, the Bears haven't done anything to shore up their primary weakness.
That said, in a year when the Pac-10 is clearly down and there are very few individual stars in college basketball, it is a good time to be an experienced, savvy, senior-laden team. That's why so many people are picking Cal as the preseason favorite in the Pac-10 and a candidate to make it to the NCAA tournament's second weekend. "We're not much different [than last season], but we should be better," a blue-jeans clad Montgomery told me after practice as he relaxed in his office. "It's hard to imagine we can shoot the ball much better. Everybody should be a little improved, a little stronger, a little hungrier."
Cal actually out-rebounded opponents last season by 2.1 boards per game, and by an average of 1.4 rebounds in conference games, but its soft interior led to problems on defense. The Bears were ranked sixth in the league in defensive field-goal percentage and seventh in defensive efficiency, and they committed 14 more turnovers than their opponents in 18 conference games. Moreover, at times their lack of overall strength hurt their offense--for instance, during a Jan. 31 matchup against USC, a 73-62 loss. "We beat USC in many aspects of the game, but they pushed us off the floor," Montgomery said. "It takes you out of your rhythm. It wears you down physically so you're not able to execute."
One potential game-changer for Cal would be if Zhang could emerge as a force in the paint. Zhang is a native of China who did not take up the sport until he was 15. He only played in 15 games last season but his 13 blocks were still second on the team.
Zhang looked intriguing at the start of Saturday's practice -- he's a legit 7-3, and he moves with impressive agility for his size -- but as the workout went on, it became clear that he is far from becoming an impact player. He took bad shots and passed up good ones, he got pushed around the block and mistimed his jumps for rebounds, and on several occasions when he did get a rebound he had the ball ripped out of his hands.
Montgomery spent a lot of time explaining basics to Zhang, and at one point when Zhang missed a turnaround jumper, 5-foot-10 senior point guard
When the Cal coaches heard that Zhang averaged 17 points and six blocks while paying for China at the World University Games last summer, they thought he might have turned a corner. Then they got a hold of the tapes and saw that Zhang was simply towering over weak competition and dominating passive zone defenses. "We'd love for Max to continue to progress," Montgomery said. "Everyone loves Max. Today [in practice], they passed him the ball too much. He's so big that he's open a lot, but that doesn't mean he has to have the ball every time."
Another question facing Cal is the health of 6-foot- 8 junior forward
Of course, outside of a few places like Lawrence and Lexington, lots of teams have weaknesses. Not many, however, have guards who are as experienced and effective as Cal's. Alongside Randle will be fellow seniors
That trio, plus 6-foot-8 senior forward
Let the building begin. Herewith, my breakdown of the 2009-10 California Bears:
Randle spent most of his summer in Chicago, working out from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with NBA players