Originally Published: October 31, 2011

Cal Takes On Personality Of Mike Montgomery

By Diamond Leung

LOS ANGELES -- Asked to be interviewed about the news of the day, Cal coach Mike Montgomery wondered aloud with his tongue firmly planted in cheek if there had been a development regarding the NBA lockout.

But try as he might with his usual sense of humor, Montgomery couldn't keep himself from turning serious when discussing how he was diagnosed with bladder cancer about a month ago and is now cancer-free following treatment.

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AP Photo/Gus RuelasDespite a recent health scare, Mike Montgomery seems fired up for Cal's upcoming season.

It wasn't easy to do, considering his comments to kick off the season included references to a polyp, a cystoscope and his own mortality.

"I may continue to be a pain in your ass from now on," Montgomery said. "Just so you know perspective-wise, [a doctor] said three months ago if we wouldn't have found this, six months from now you'd be done."

The intensely private Montgomery waited until after undergoing surgery Oct. 19 to publicly reveal why he had needed a procedure that briefly forced him to step away from fall practices. He said he would not be limited in his ability to coach, preferring to stick to the subject of his team, which begins the season ranked 24th in both national polls.

Still, in discussing Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp, perhaps Montgomery showed just how much his own personality is reflected in his senior leaders, calling them "kids that are proven winners, know how to play, tough, smart."

The Pac-12 is up for grabs this season, and California has as much of a chance to win the title as any team given that its four returning starters have proved themselves as warriors with such qualities.

The long-haired Gutierrez has pestered opposing players for years with his physical style of play. Kamp, who redshirted the Bears' Pac-10 championship season in 2009-10 while dealing with a knee injury, spends an inordinate amount of time in the training room yet turned himself into an all-conference player. Reigning conference freshman of the year Allen Crabbe needed his nose reset in the offseason after taking an elbow during USA Basketball training camp and has played with a facemask. Brandon Smith, a 5-foot-11 overachiever, stepped into the starting lineup and helped turn around the Bears' fortunes after top recruit Gary Franklin abruptly transferred midseason.

"It's a hard-working group with good work ethic, reasonable-to-good talent … I think we have a chance to be pretty competitive," Montgomery said.

"For me, the idea of being competitive and having an opportunity to compete for a championship is all you really can ask, and I think we're in that position."

Cal at one point last season had only eight available scholarship players due to attrition and injuries, but still won 18 games and made the NIT. Now the Golden Bears are picked to finish second in the Pac-12.

Montgomery downplayed his cancer diagnosis being a motivating factor for the team, but Gutierrez said the team has developed a deeper connection with the 64-year-old coach since he opened up about the matter.

After averaging 14.6 points and leading the team in assists and steals as a junior, Gutierrez could be in for another big season if he can stay healthy while diving on floors and getting aggressive with the opposition.

"I'm just a competitive guy," said Gutierrez, who Montgomery counts as one of his all-time favorites to coach. "I don't like to lose. I think every game matters. Every play matters. For a guy like me, winning is everything."

Cal is expected to have more depth this season with Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs becoming eligible, as he can play both guard positions, allowing Montgomery to mix and match personnel. Richard Solomon, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, has untapped potential as well, and the Bears hope he'll have a breakout year.

"I felt like last year just out of necessity we were forced to run some guys a little bit longer and harder than we would have liked," Montgomery said. "I thought we paid a price toward the end of the season. Guys were just beat up."

With a clean bill of health for himself and a team that could very well make it three NCAA tournament appearances in four seasons, Montgomery wants the focus to be basketball. He conveyed that message on media day, but only after making a poignant opening statement.

"It's good to see everybody," Montgomery said. "In lieu of recent circumstances, it's good to be seen."

Sean Miller Lowers Expectations For These Cats

By Diamond Leung

LOS ANGELES -- The morning after Arizona fell to Division II Seattle Pacific in the Wildcats' first exhibition game loss in 27 years, coach Sean Miller spoke in ominous tones.

He said Seattle Pacific was the better team. He called his own team a work in progress. The Wildcats had eaten a slice of humble pie and hit a speed bump coming off a season in which they went to the Elite Eight.

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AP Photo/Gus RuelasArizona coach Sean Miller is doing his best to downplay expectations in Tucson.

"There's no way in the world we're the third-best team in the Pac-12," Miller said of the media's prediction for UA. "You can say every coach says something like that. I didn't say that last year. Hopefully I won't say it next year, but I'm saying it now. There is no chance at all that's where we are.

"When you watch us in November, you're going to see that whoever we play is going to be a really tough game because we have a lot of development to do."

Arizona, based on the return of three starters and the addition of a highly regarded recruiting class, is expected to contend for the Pac-12 title and make its presence felt in March.

But for now, the Cats will have to find a new identity after losing one of the nation's most athletic, dynamic and efficient players in Derrick Williams to the NBA draft, along with point guard Lamont "MoMo" Jones to a transfer. They're also missing experienced forward Kevin Parrom, who is recovering from a gunshot wound suffered while at home in the Bronx in late September. He might not return until at least December.

"We're not the team that was in the Elite Eight," Miller said. "We're a brand-new team."

This team will count on major contributions from its four top-100 recruits -- point guard Josiah Turner, shooting guard Nick Johnson and big men Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson.

Johnson is the most college-ready of the bunch, according to Miller. The big men still need to commit to rebounding and learn to play college-level defense. It's Turner who is the Class of 2011's third-ranked point guard and enters school with huge expectations despite the complexities of running an offense.

"The hardest position I think to transfer from high school to college is point guard," Miller said. "With continued work, he's going to be a much better player four weeks from now, two weeks from now, than he is right now, and I'm confident in saying that."

Said senior guard Kyle Fogg: "Leading the younger guys, they're all willing to learn. When you have something to say to them, they really listen."

If the freshmen continue to develop, the veterans play larger roles and Parrom returns, the Wildcats should be able to play at a level that will make everyone forget all about that exhibition slip-up. After all, the blueprint for a deep NCAA tournament run was already established under Miller last season.

"We weren't very good in November," Miller said. "We got a little bit better in December. By the time we got into late February or March, we certainly became a terrific team. That now becomes the goal of this year's team with the reality that our starting point isn't very high."

The Bull's-Eye Is Back On UCLA

By Diamond Leung
LOS ANGELES -- UCLA is the pick to win the Pac-12, marking the first time the Bruins have occupied the top spot in the preseason since coming off a third straight Final Four appearance three years ago. But only when asked about the media poll did coach Ben Howland even mention it.

"Our team always has high expectations," Howland said. "It's the expectations we put on ourselves that matter most. It's always nice to be picked high, but that doesn't guarantee anything. It's where you finish."

The Bruins are coming off a bounce-back season during which they got back to the NCAA tournament and beat Michigan State while there. Even after Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee left early for the NBA draft, this team is expected to improve in a big way.

Howland raved last season about the addition of twin transfers David and Travis Wear from North Carolina, and he's been quick to praise their offseason work ethic. They will be a critical part of the gigantic front line Howland is expected to use alongside wide-bodied Joshua Smith.

The three sophomores are all 6-foot-10, with David Wear penciled in to play most of the time at the small forward position in Howland's lineup. There's also top scorer and rebounder Reeves Nelson. Anthony Stover, another 6-foot-10 sophomore, could miss the beginning of the season with a shoulder injury, but is expected to return. The key could be keeping Smith on the floor, after he battled foul trouble and weight issues as a freshman.

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AP Photo/Gus RuelasBen Howland and UCLA haven't made it past the NCAA's first weekend since a third straight Final Four in 2008.

"When he finally does reach his potential in terms of his conditioning, he'll be unstoppable," Howland said. "That's how good I think he can be."

The flipside of the equation is at guard, where UCLA expects to start Lazeric Jones at the point, alongside Tyler Lamb, who steps into the lineup to replace Lee as the team's top perimeter defender.

The rare recruitment of a junior college player (Jones) was once a symbol of the Bruins' need to make up for a lack of talent on the roster. Now it's Jones who is expected to take control of the offense after winning the point guard job last season and playing through a wrist injury toward the end of the season.

"He played with his left hand not being able to even move it half of the year last year, which is really hard," Howland said. "He showed a lot of toughness to get it up through all of that, but he's had a great spring, great summer playing against NBA players every day in the Men's Gym [UCLA's practice floor this season]. A lot of people rave about how he played, so I'm excited."

One other factor that could get in UCLA's way is that all of its games will be played away from historic Pauley Pavilion, which is undergoing renovations. The Bruins will play at various venues across Southern California and make their primary home for this season the Los Angeles Sports Arena, which is near the campus of rival USC.

"The fact that we're right by SC is kind of weird," Jones said. "I was talking to somebody earlier about us getting booed at our home games, but it will be a different experience. It's all right for us to be able to play on the road. I feel like we come together on the road. I feel we'll be mentally tough enough to fight through it."

Physically, UCLA is expected to muscle around opponents with Howland's emphasis on defense and rebounding. The traveling road show features a three-headed monster with the Wear twins and Smith. With the Bruins back in the national rankings and the Pac-12 preseason favorite, the bull's-eye on them is back.

Just Like That, Oregon Has High Hopes Again

By Diamond Leung

LOS ANGELES -- When Oregon coach Dana Altman introduced himself to the conference last year by tempering expectations at media day and good-naturedly accepting the last-place preseason projections, that wasn't necessarily an expression of his aw-shucks personality.

"I was honest," said Altman, who, due to transfers following the coaching change, wasn't sure at that point what kind of team he had.

But after the Ducks surprised by not only coming through with a winning record, but also capturing the CBI championship while Altman worked to stockpile talent for this season, there is little doubt that more is expected these days.

Oregon added Jabari Brown, the nation's seventh-ranked shooting guard, for the recruiting class of 2011, and also brought in three transfers -- Olu Ashaolu, Tony Woods and Devoe Joseph -- who will all become eligible this season.

"It's a talented group, and I think we've just got to establish roles and kind of settle into those roles," said senior Garrett Sim, who will have an opportunity to start at point guard. "I think the potential for this group is through the roof."

At the same time, Altman is quick to point out that a team with eight newcomers will still go through its share of growing pains. The team went on a preseason tour of Italy, and while Brown made a statement by leading the team in scoring, the Ducks were also very much turnover-prone.

But perhaps Altman's excitement level about the team is better reflected in his promises to bring his full-court pressure defense to Matthew Knight Arena this season. As Sim said, "We're going to press all game."

After all, the amount of talent on the team allows for it.

"We like our increased athleticism," Altman said. "We like our increased depth. It will take some time for us to jell as a team. I think team chemistry is going to be important. But I like the direction that our guys are heading."

Consider that to be progress. Altman wasn't one of Oregon's top choices when he was named to the position and inherited a depleted roster that wasn't expected to create much excitement in that first season. The conversation is no longer about rebuilding.

"I think our goals are much higher than last year," Sim said. "Last year we were dead last in every poll, and this year I think people are expecting some things."

Said Altman: "All we talk about is getting better."


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