BERKELEY — Coach Mike Montgomery anticipates big things for Tyrone Wallace, but he didn’t expect the freshman guard to play such a crucial role this year.
With his backcourt hobbled by injuries, Montgomery relied on Wallace for an average of 28.1 minutes per game this season and the freshman’s contribution helped the Cal men’s basketball team land its fourth NCAA Tournament invitation in five years. And when the 12th-seeded Bears (20-11) tipoff against No. 5 UNLV (24-9) in the tournament’s second round at HP Pavilion today, they’ll expect Wallace to play with maturity beyond his years.
“He was thrown into the mix pretty early and he responded,” Montgomery said. “Basically, he’s not a freshman anymore.”
In Montgomery’s eyes, Wallace was the top high school guard in California last year. He averaged 22.2 points per game and the Bears’ coach liked his size (6-foot-4), length (6-8 wingspan) and raw athletic talent.
But he intended to expand his minutes gradually, playing him behind Ricky Kreklow, a Missouri transfer, and Brandon Smith.
The plan took a quick detour, however, when Kreklow reinjured his surgically repaired foot and Smith struggled to find consistency. Wallace cracked the starting lineup on Dec. 18 against UC Santa Barbara and he led the team on the glass with 10 rebounds while registering a double-double by scoring 10 points.
“I was able to take advantage of the opportunity and run away with it,” Wallace said.
His minutes increased, again, after Smith suffered a concussion in his second start and he responded with poise, nailing two 3-point shots in the final 4:31 at USC on Jan. 5 to ice a 72-64 victory and scored a team-high 16 points in a 67-54 win over Washington State on Jan. 12.
While he’s listed as a point guard, Wallace racks up more rebounds than assists. He led the team on the glass five times this season, a significant contribution considering that Cal’s big men often struggle on the boards.
“That’s definitely one of the areas where I knew I could come in and help,” Wallace said.
But Wallace will need to work on his shot over the summer. He’s currently shooting 34.5 percent from the field, 22.5 percent from beyond the arc and 55.1 from the charity stripe. Montgomery said he should also beef up to strengthen his defense.
“With his size and strength it will really help him,” he said. “The game has gotten more physical as we’ve moved through the season and he gets victimized.”
But right now, Wallace is just excited to be a part of March Madness.
“To go from watching the tournament in high school last year to being a starter in the tournament at the D-I level — it’s big,” he said.