BERKELEY -- Over the four games the California basketball team has been without Ricky Kreklow and Jabari Bird, the Bears have gone 4-0, winning their first three conference games on the road for the first time since 1957, so, what does Cal do when its five-star freshman comes back on Wednesday against Washington?
"With this team, it's the more the merrier," says freshman wing Jordan Mathews. "We have so many weapons, that someone's bound to get off. We just incorporate them back in. Nothing's going to really change."
Bird practiced Monday for the first time since spraining his ankle against Creighton, and head coach Mike Montgomery says the freshman out of Richmond (Calif.) Salesian – who was averaging 11.3 points and 3.2 boards per game before going down – practiced hard, and should be "ready to go," against the Huskies.
"He didn't limp. He pretty much looked as if he wasn't worried about it, and I think there's probably some rust there," Montgomery says. "He's missed a lot of practice time and game time, but I anticipate him getting better every day, pretty quickly."
How will Bird fit back into the lineup, though? With the performances of Mathews – who scored 32 points against Oregon, and has averaged 11.5 points per game, never playing less than 18 minutes – and senior Jeff Powers -- who has averaged 9.25 points per game, playing an average of 13 minutes – playing time may be hard to come by.
"We're going to have to wait and see," Montgomery says. "He's going to have to earn his way back into this thing. We've won four games, and he's going to have to earn his way back in. We've got pretty good chemistry. I don't think there's any question [that] talent-wise, he's a real plus for us, but Jeff kind of stepped to the forefront a little bit and he certainly deserves a chance, but I would expect that we would start to see where he would be, how he reacts in game time and to game intensity, because, certainly, conference games are more intense than what he's probably experienced at this point."
Bird started nine of his 12 games before the injury, but given how Cal has played in his absence, he'll be able to ease back in. Is there a concern that some minutes may be cut from other players to help facilitate that? A bit, Montgomery admits, but not much.
"Guys have to buy in. They have to accept roles," said the Bears' head coach. "They have to understand. For example, Jordan has 32 on Thursday, everybody's really excited for him. Then, he doesn't have that kind of game, and Jeff comes in and he scores the ball and they're excited for him. There doesn't appear to be any concerns, because Justin knows he's going to get plenty of time, Richard, David – those guys know they're going to get plenty of time and plenty of looks. I think Oregon, when Artis and the other guy came back – the center – maybe disrupted that, just a little bit, because now there's two more guys that are taking some of the time, and that's hard."
Mathews, though, has been streaky, to say the least. After scoring 10 points against Furman, Mathews made just one shot against Stanford, before going off for 32 against the Ducks and then disappearing again against Oregon State, going 1-for-8 from the field.
"It's just a learning process," Mathews says. "Every game's going to be different. It's not like high school, where you can get on a roll. You have to treat every game differently and approach it as such. Some teams are going to come at you different ways than other teams do. This is a really tough league, so you'd better come with it every game."
Mathews has more than just the Cal coaching staff in his ear, though. His father – former UCLA coach Phil Mathews -- gives him plenty of advice, as well.
"He's always going to approach it as a coach. He gives me a healthy dose of Dad, and then coach, as well," Mathews says. "He was like, ‘You played well. You just have to keep improving, have confidence in yourself.' He usually has games the same nights we have games, so he watches the tape late at night, and he'll text me early in the morning. I'll talk to him in the morning about it."
So, what does Dad say, and what does Coach Mathews say?
"Dad says, ‘I'm proud of you,' and he's really happy that we had three straight road wins. He was at UCLA last year and he said that's really hard to do," Mathews says. "The coach always says, well, he's always critiquing, so he said I fell asleep a couple times on defense, or didn't go rebound when I could have. He's just trying to help me improve every time out there."
Having Bird back, though, while maybe making minutes harder to come by, adds just another shooter to a lineup that has spread the ball around quite a bit over the last four games. Six different Bears have scored in double figures over those four games, with Richard Solomon, Justin Cobbs and Tyrone Wallace turning the trick in each game, and Powers, Kravish and Mathews each going off for double figures twice.
"When the ball goes in to Rich, he gets ganged up on, you saw Oregon and Oregon State keeping the ball out of Justin's hands, teams are stacking up on Jeff in the corner, and same with Jordan, so it's so spread out that I don't think teams can really focus on one player because we have so many different options to go to. That's one of our strengths," says Kravish.
That well-rounded scoring attack has taken the pressure off of the individual players, something Kravish says contributes to the kind of team chemistry that was on display for the world to see during the game against the Beavers.
"We have an excited group, animated on the bench, especially on the road," says Kravish. "You need that energy.
"We've just got to keep doing what we're doing. Every day in practice, we've just got to bring intensity. This group's really gelled together really well. It's not just on the court. Off the court, we're hanging out together. Everyone's pretty close. It's a good group of guys, and everyone really enjoys each other, so that really helps our team chemistry."
While not coming back for this week's pair of games against Washington and Washington State, Montgomery said that Kreklow is also on the mend from a broken hand.
"Doctor's going to revaluate the wrist, I think, this week," Montgomery says. "He's working on range of motion, he's dribbling a little bit right-handed. He's not really shooting the ball. He's got to build his strength up. I'd say about a week or two."
Another Bullet in the Gun
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