Dickey: With players calling the shots, Cal won’t go far 

Mike Montgomery is coaching much differently than he did in his years at Stanford, and that difference is the reason the play of the Cal men’s basketball team this season has been so uneven.

Montgomery’s style at Stanford was, well, autocratic. Players had sharply defined roles.

“This is not an equal opportunity offense,” he said to me one day, explaining why almost all the shots were taken by three players.

He built his teams inside out, around big men in the middle, and they played consistently strong defense.

This is a much different Cal team, as he admitted last week as the Bears were preparing for their Oregon road trip.

Montgomery is coaching a team that is largely Ben Braun’s recruits, a team whose main players are perimeter shooters.

“It made sense to build around them,” he said, “especially because we didn’t have the scholarships to bring in a lot of players.”

It is also an older team, usually starting four seniors. One of them, Theo Robertson, has already graduated. Another, Jamal Boykin, needs only an online course he’s taking this semester. Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher expect to graduate this spring.

“Coach has given us ownership of this team,” said Boykin, meaning that Montgomery invites input from his players.

Montgomery acknowledged that, too. But the “senior leadership” has had some serious lapses this season.

Montgomery noted that the key to the team’s success is defense: “We can score, so if we play good defense, we’re alright.”

The players don’t always get that message. They lost a game earlier this season to the weakest UCLA team in years because they didn’t work very hard. They got blown out by Washington in Seattle, returning the favor when the two teams met at Haas Pavilion.

Last week, they lost to an Oregon State team that is in the bottom half of the conference standings. Then, they slumbered through the first half against Oregon — probably the worst team in the conference —  before turning up the intensity, and defense, in the second half to win comfortably.

Even with all the ups and downs, the Bears still lead the conference. The race has narrowed down to Cal and Arizona State, a half-game back. The Bears host the Sun Devils and Arizona this week. If they sweep, they will likely be regular-season conference champs for the first time in 50 years, going back to Pete Newell’s final year.

When the Bears play with intensity, they’re fun to watch, because they’re hounding the other team on defense, making steals and fast-break buckets, and hitting 3-pointers from another area code.

But there are just too many lapses to think they’ll go anywhere in the postseason. This is obviously a down year for the conference, and yet, the Bears haven’t been able to put distance between them and other teams. They’ve won games by playing well in spurts, but in NCAA Tournament play, winning teams have to play that way for 40 minutes. The Bears seem unable to do that.

Which shows that it’s better when the coach sets the tone. It doesn’t work as well when players are guiding the ship, no matter how experienced they are.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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Glenn Dickey

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