Toughness shortage could prove tough for Pac-10 favorite Cal

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BERKELEY, Calif. -- California coach Mike Montgomery stood on the court at Hass Pavilion last Saturday afternoon and patiently walked his players through an offensive set. About 15 minutes into practice, Montgomery found himself standing between two of his primary big men, 6-foot-7 juco transfer Markhuri Sanders-Frison and 7-foot-3 sophomore center Max Zhang. Suddenly, Montgomery raised his voice, not out of anger but for emphasis.

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"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 Jerome Randle shouted, "That's a good shot!" Then he slapped Zhang hard on the rear, which was at Randle's eye level.

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 Harper Kamp. He suffers from what Montgomery said is simply "a bad knee -- and it's not going to ever not be a bad knee." Kamp had his second surgery on his knee this summer, but he was unable to practice on Saturday. Montgomery will have to manage Kamp's practice time like he did all last season and hope Kamp's pain will stay at low enough level for him to play in games. "He really knows how to play, but at some point he has to go hard enough in practice to go game speed," Montgomery said. "It's a shame because he hasn't been able to use his natural explosiveness."

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 Theo Robertson, a 6-foot-6 swingman who led the nation in three-point shooting last season (48.7 percent), and 6-foot-5 shooting guard Patrick Christopher, an NBA prospect who needs to improve his consistency. (He shot 31.9 percent from three-point range in Cal's losses.)

That trio, plus 6-foot-8 senior forward Jamal Boykin, knows this is their last go-round. Their collective desperation will be the Bears's biggest asset. "We've been through a lot," Randle told me after practice. "We have a lot to prove to let people know we can play at any level. We're trying to build a legacy for the guys who come here later."

Let the building begin. Herewith, my breakdown of the 2009-10 California Bears:

Heart and soul: Randle. This is one of my favorite players in the country, and not just because we see eye-to-eye. Randle was not highly recruited coming out of Chicago -- he chose Cal over Tulsa -- and though it took him two full years to adjust to playing major college basketball, he emerged as one of the best point guards in the country last season, when he was the Bears' leading scorer (18.3 ppg) while shooting 50.1 percent from the field, 46.3 percent from beyond the arc and 86.3 percent from the foul line.

Randle spent most of his summer in Chicago, working out from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. with NBA players Will Bynum and Gilbert Arenas. He returned to Berkeley with a renewed commitment to defense, and Montgomery told me he is the player most likely to assert his leadership in the locker room. "Jerome cares a lot," Montgomery said. "He's very competitive and tends to get down on himself too much. But he can shoot with anybody and he's doggone quick."

Most improved: Vacant. I don't usually like to cop out like this, but no matter how much I pressed him, Montgomery could not come up with a clear candidate for this category. "They are what they are," he said of his players. He meant it as a compliment, but it's not a great sign that none of the Bears are significantly better than they were a year ago.

X factor: Sanders-Frison. This is the most likely candidate to help the Bears shore up their muscularity deficit. The 275-pound forward arrived in Berkeley late in the summer because he was finishing up his academic work at South Plains Community College in Portland; that cost him valuable time to learn the Bears' system. The bigger problem -- literally -- is that he also showed up 30 pounds overweight. Sanders-Frison has lost about half the extra pounds already, and if he can get as svelte as Montgomery wants him to be, he can really help this team.

Glue Guy: Jorge Gutierrez. The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard did not practice on Saturday, so I didn't get to see him in the flesh, but Montgomery glowed as he discussed Gutierrez's glue-y contributions last season. For example, when Cal played Arizona State, Montgomery deployed Gutierrez to defend James Harden. "I told Jorge, every time he goes to the basket, I want him on the ground," Montgomery said. "It was either going to be a block or a charge, but we wanted Harden on the ground. And he did that." A month later, after Cal found itself trailing Stanford by 22 points at home, Montgomery put Gutierrez in the game, and his defense and energy helped Cal come back to win by seven. It's not encouraging when a coach calls a then-freshman his toughest player, but there's no denying Gutierrez's value to this team.

Lost in the shuffle: Nikola Knezevic. The 6-foot-3 guard from Serbia has good size and strength, and he is a deadeye shooter. On most teams that will get you 25 minutes a game, but last season Knezevic mustered only 6.4. Montgomery does not like to play more than seven or eight guys, and the last thing he needs is another long-range shooting guard who is a defensive liability.

Bottom line: Montgomery discarded my suggestion that his players would be challenged by having to begin the season with lofty expectations. "Teams will probably pay more attention to us, but they're still going to have to beat us," he said. That won't be easy, especially in the early going, but my sense is that as the year wears on, younger teams will improve and the gap between Cal and its opponents will shrink. Plus, March basketball is more grueling and physical than the kind played during the regular season. Still, this is undeniably a very good, fundamentally sound team that is not going to lose many games that it shouldn't. Barring injuries, an NCAA bid should be a given, and a Sweet 16 berth is a 50-50 possibility. Anything more would be a very sweet surprise.