Mike Montgomery: Crime Fighter

Mike Montgomery talks about what he expects of his freshman class, who Kameron Rooks reminds him of and what kind of pressure Jabari Bird is under in this exclusive one-on-one. PLUS: What would Monty do when confronted with a computer thief?

SAN FRANCISCO -- What would Mike Montgomery do, if faced with the same situation his former protégé – Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak -- was, when confronted with two would-be thieves on campus?

"Well," Montgomery says, after sharing a coy grin with point guard Justin Cobbs, "I've got to be careful with this answer. My natural sense of humor would lead me in a bad direction."

What direction could that be? Knowing Montgomery, the first answer off the top of his head probably had something to do with just how … ahem … safe(?) a city Berkeley is at night. But, instead of going that direction, Montgomery just went and won the press conference at Pac-12 Men's Basketball Media Day at the Pac-12 Networks Studios in San Francisco.

"If I was built and looked like Krystko, I would probably tackle him, wrestle him to the ground and sit on him like he did," Montgomery said. "As it is, I would probably wish him well and hope that computer works for him."

No one would ever dare accuse the sixth-year Cal head coach of being a vengeful, spirit-of-the-night vigilante.

*****

Montgomery's Golden Bears were picked fifth in the conference media poll, and despite losing Allen Crabbe to the NBA, Cal could arguably be a stronger team than last year, albeit in a much stronger conference, buoyed by plenty of young talent, including Montgomery's own five-star prospect, Jabari Bird.

Bird, though, is not alone among the crop of newcomers. Voted as the favorite to win the conference's MVP award was Bird's fellow McDonald's All-American, Arizona's Aaron Gordon.

"I think everybody likes attention, but I think he's really pretty comfortable with where he is, what he's doing, and I don't think he thinks much about that," Montgomery told BearTerritory in a one-on-one interview. "Obviously, he sees Aaron Gordon, for example, one of his buddies, one of his better friends, picked to be the MVP of the conference. I wonder how he reacts to that a little."

Bird was the subject of much of Montgomery's time at the podium, to the point where the fifth-year head coach opined, "Are we still on Jabari?" after being asked about his expectations for his 6-foot-6 freshman.

"Well, he can really shoot the ball, which is a nice starting point," said Montgomery. "I'll compare him and Allen [Crabbe] a little bit coming in. Allen was a great shooter. But Allen knew that, and that's really what Allen did, was shoot the ball. So as a freshman he pretty much waited to catch the ball and shoot it. Jabari can shoot the ball, but he's a little more inclined to try to get to the basket. He can play above the rim. But we're actually trying to get him a little more to where Allen was, and that is, look, you're a great shooter, get your feet set. If it comes to you and you're open, knock it down. And that will open up the drives for you. So I'm not -- I don't want to put expectations on Jabari. I want him to develop, I want him to learn as a freshman. Certainly coming in with the ability he has is going to give him a great opportunity, but the expectations is that he has a great freshman year and he helps us win basketball games."

And the Bears have a very good chance to do just that, particularly in the nonconference part of the schedule, and especially because there is now more depth than Montgomery has had in his previous four years at the helm, in large part thanks to a top-25 recruiting class.

Montgomery talked about several of his newcomers with BearTerritory, and cited freshman point Sam Singer as one player who could potentially see some significant playing time.

"The interesting thing is, I feel like we have six perimeter guys right now, and I don't want to discount anybody," Montgomery said. "We really don't have anybody on the perimeter – even Garret Galvin – who can't play. They all can play. They're competitive. So, Sam, right now, I would say, probably does as good a job of running the point as any of the freshmen would do."

The second point, though, behind starter Cobbs, would be sophomore Tyrone Wallace, who has improved significantly over the offseason.

"For one thing, Ty's grown," Montgomery said. "He's a legitimate 6-foot-5. He's stronger. And I think that he did a really good job for us last year, kind of thrown into the mix. Really with Ricky [Kreklow] being out, we had no choice with him. And he's much more experienced player right now. Defensively he's very good. He's a great rebounder from the guard position. And I don't mean to -- what I mean is that freshmen typically get screened. There's just things that they don't know, they have never had to do, because they're typically more talented in high school than everybody else, and now all of a sudden they're finding players that are as big, as fast, as strong, all that kind of stuff. I think Ty, he can play multiple positions for us, he's great at penetration and finishing around the basket. He potentially could be an excellent defender, point of attack, and, as I mentioned, he's a great rebounder."

Wallace was particularly helpful while Cobbs convalesced following a stress fracture in his fifth metatarsal on Aug. 12, during the San Francisco Pro Am. Cobbs said that he's "80 percent" now, and Montgomery said he's now practiced two days without any trouble.

"We've had Tyrone Wallace there when Justin was out," Montgomery told BearTerritory. "We had Tyrone playing the point, [Singer] would play the two and Jabari the three, but now, with Justin back, we've kind of put Sam in behind Justin and put Tyrone back at the two, but it's a problem you kind of have, is you look at Jabari, you look at Ricky, you look at Ty and you look at Justin – that's four guys for three spots that are all pretty capable, and frankly, I wouldn't hesitate to throw Jordan Mathews into that mix, so what we're probably looking at right now, because we really don't know which direction to go with the next big guy, is maybe moving Kravish or Solomon in for the other and then using Ricky to play a small four, and play more small ball."

Kreklow has been playing at 100 percent since returning from foot problems which kept him out for the majority of last season, and, Montgomery says, is just as intense as ever.

"He's not afraid. He brings a lot to the table," Montgomery told BT. "He's a vocal leader, in terms of telling guys what to do and trying to be the glue. He's very good that way. He's a great teammate. Probably played two or three positions and not afraid to be physical. He's good."

As for the low post situation, the Bears will once again be a bit on the thin side, and will likely rely on two youngsters to help fill in behind David Kravish and Richard Solomon.

"We do need to bring one of those bigs along, whether it be Christian Behrens or big Kam Rooks or somebody's got to play there," Montgomery told BearTerritory. "After those two, size-wise, we really are with [senior Jeff] Powers at 6-7, [freshman] Roger [Moute a Bidias] at 6-6, we're pretty much in that small ball-type category. The key is to just have combinations of people who are the best players on the floor."

The 6-foot-9, 225-pound Behrens – who wore his ACL for the second time last season – is slowly on the mend, and is one of Montgomery's special projects down low.

"He's coming off his second ACL, so he's not that many months out of the surgery. He's playing every day, but he's timid," Montgomery said. "He's not really confident in the thing. I guess you wouldn't be, fi you did it again. I think he's fearful. He still wears that brace. He can do some things. If I can get him to get over that knee issue, and to get confident and play hard, he's pretty skilled, and that would be a key ingredient for us."

As for Rooks, he's gone from 295 pounds at his biggest down to around 255, and knows how to use his size. Cobbs told BearTerritory that he's never seen anyone that big, and that despite his girth, Cobbs says, Rooks is very skilled and has very soft hands.

"One of the things that concerned people in recruiting was, ‘Will he train?' Once we got assurances that he would do that, we were very anxious to recruit him, and he is working hard," said Montgomery. "He needs to get stronger, he needs to learn the offense, so that the things that he's capable of doing, he's in the position to do those things. A lot of freshmen go in circles."

Rooks, Montgomery told BT, has good touch away from the basket, but, "that's not what we're going to ask him to do."

What the Bears coaching staff is going to ask Rooks to do is clog the middle and use his big behind to make space in the lane, something he's more than adept at doing, even in his new, svelte body.

"He's a load inside, I'll say that," Montgomery smiled. "He is a load inside. If he gets a spot, you're not going to get around him, or over, because he's just so big."

In many ways, Montgomery said, Rooks could wind up being what Markhuri Sanders-Frison would have been, had he been at Cal for four years instead of two.

"Maybe a little bit," Montgomery said. "Markhuri was a very smart player who was out of shape and really worked to get in shape. I think Markhuri was older, so he was able to get to where he wanted to get a little bit quicker, but Rooksie will be fine."

As for Bird – the first five-star Motngomery has wrangled, and the first McDonald's All-American since Leon Powe?

"I am always leery about the attention that freshmen get, because I think that the adjustment of a freshman coming into a successful college program is always a little bit difficult," Montgomery said. "Jabari's terrific. He's a terrific kid, very talented. Probably the most high-profile freshman that we have ever had since I've been at California. And he's going to be a great player. So what I want to do is make sure that we're not pushing him to try to do things that he's not comfortable with. I want him to learn the game, because I think he's got a great future. It's going to be the responsibility of a guy like Justin to make sure that we take advantage of his abilities. We have thrown a lot of stuff at them right now, and their heads are spinning, they're reeling. But he's a very, very talented player. And I would suspect that as we move through the season and we get some game experience and the more he figures out how to utilize those skills and we figure out how to utilize his skills -- i.e., get him involved in things -- the better he's going to be. But our responsibility to any young player as a coach is to bring them along and try to get them to reach their full potential. And that's what we're going to do. But I would be surprised if he didn't have a fairly significant impact by the end of the year. At the same time, for us to be successful we have got a number of people that are going to have to have really solid years and do what they're capable of doing for us to win.

Cobbs told BT that, since he's "as close as brothers" with the departed Crabbe, he won't say Bird is better than the new Portland Trail Blazer, but he can certainly shoot just as well, something Montgomery hopes is a skill that Bird continues to develop.

"Jabari's just a terrific kid. He wants to be coached. He wants to be better," Montgomery told BearTerritory. "There are things that he does that probably just don't work, and he's got to learn, ‘Let's go to the next thing.' He can't just overpower people. He's got to set up his drive shot, and he's a terrific shooter. We're trying to get him to understand that catch, balanced-up jump shot rotation in rhythm is a great shot for him."

In high school, all Bird had to do was just out-athlete his competition. That won't cut it in the Pac-12.

"He shot over the top of them," Montgomery said. "I remember a game where he played against Gordon, and Gordon knew what he wanted to do, and it really bothered him in the first part of the game, because [Jabari] couldn't do what he wanted to do. It's a little bit of that same thing."

California, Bird and Cobbs open the season on Nov. 8 against Coppin State at 9 p.m. Pacific on Pac-12 Bay Area, after an Oct. 31 exhibition against Humboldt State at 7 p.m.

The Golden Bears will hold an open practice on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Haas Pavilion, in advance of the Cal football team's 7:30 p.m. game against Oregon State.

BearTerritory.net Top Stories