Shove or no shove, this season could prove to be Mike Montgomery’s finest piece of work in his 30-plus years of coaching.
On the court, the Cal men’s basketball team would probably get blown out by his 1998 Final Four squad from Stanford, and would likely get beaten by the Bears clan that won the Pac-10 Conference title in 2010, too.
But this season’s campaign is remarkable because of the psychological transformation his team has experienced in the past 10 games. Six weeks ago, the Bears looked like the softest team in the Pac-12, but now with one game remaining, they’re suddenly in contention for a conference championship.
The talent of this Bears group was never in question. Allen Crabbe is a former California Gatorade Player of the Year, Justin Cobbs is a versatile scorer out of the backcourt and Richard Solomon has the size and skill to be one of the Pac-12’s elite power forwards.
But after a 6-0 start, the Bears looked mentally fragile, dropping games to Wisconsin, UNLV, Creighton, Harvard and UCLA. When Washington ran Cal out of Haas Pavilion 62-47 on Jan. 9, sophomore forward David Kravish summed up the problem with two words: “No heart.”
Most of Cal’s losses followed a similar recipe: low effort on the defensive glass, sloppy defense when the offense struggled and passive play from Crabbe, who often slumped his shoulders when the ball wasn’t falling through the net.
Montgomery said that focus is a big challenge with this team.
I caught a glimpse of the focus issue during pregame warmups prior to Cal’s showdown with Creighton on Dec. 15. The Bluejays’ top player, Doug McDermott, the coach’s son and a returning All-American, was completely locked in. He took a series of shots from a variety of spots on the floor — in the paint, on the elbow, from the baseline — and his concentration never veered from the ball and the basket.
Then, I watched Crabbe as he finished up. He took trick shots from halfcourt and tried to sink a few from below the baseline, over the backboard. In short, it wasn’t surprising when McDermott dropped 34 points later in the night and Crabbe struggled through a 6-of-26 shooting day.
But Crabbe and the rest of the team have matured quickly over the past six weeks. They’ve rattled off nine wins in 10 games and they’re getting it done on the defensive end, even when their shots aren’t finding the bottom of the net. Secondary scorers, like Solomon, Cobbs and Tyrone Wallace, are stepping up to provide support and Crabbe is taking ownership of his game, saying things like, “It’s all up to me. Nobody’s going to hold me back but myself.”
How did Montgomery shift the tides so quickly? Why are his players suddenly buying in? How do you coach focus?
“That I’m not real sure of,” said Montgomery, sounding befuddled himself.
Some will credit “the shove” for lighting a fire, but the axis flipped long before the altercation. More than likely, the Bears’ turnaround is the product of weeks of instruction that suddenly clicked with the help of some in-game experiences. It’s tough to put your finger on, but sometimes good coaching is just good coaching.
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter@GackleReport.