It’s been eight months since Mike Montgomery retired from coaching basketball and moved into the broadcast booth, and his one-time hand-picked successor for the California coaching job -- Travis DeCuire, Montgomery’s assistant for six years -- is finally coming back to Berkeley, but at the head of his alma mater Montana, which comes to Haas Pavilion for a 7 p.m. tilt on the Pac-12 Networks on Wednesday.
“It’s another game, another team; we’re worried about ourselves. I look forward to talking with him after, but we prepare like it’s another game. I still keep in touch, here and there, with everybody on the old staff, but I haven’t talked to [DeCuire] recently,” said Sam Singer, who was one of five then-freshmen – including Jordan Mathews, Roger Moute a Bidias, the injured Jabari Bird and out-for-the-season Kameron Rooks -- who went to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’s office during the coaching search, in hope of lobbying for the assistant that recruited them to get the head job. “We didn’t exactly go to the Chancellor’s office. We went in there, couldn’t get a meeting. We had o schedule an appointment, so we never ended up seeing him. After that happened, we stayed out of the whole process, and we waited to see who was our new coach.”
The administration ultimately chose Cuonzo Martin to replace Montgomery.
“Originally, we wanted to keep somebody in house, we loved TD, we wanted him to stay, but we’re really excited about coach Martin,” Singer said. “The transition’s been great. That’s all in the past. We didn’t hear coach Martin’s name throughout the whole process, so we really had no idea. When we found out about coach Martin, we were all really excited, and it’s worked out really well for us.”
Martin has the Bears off to a 5-1 start, averaging 74.7 points per game – the highest scoring average since the 2009-10 Pac-10 championship team.
Singer could wind up starting on Wednesday, if Bird – who injured his left foot during Sunday’s win over Fresno State, and wore a boot on Tuesday – can’t go, though Martin said that he’s had plenty of players wear a boot one day and play the next.
“You’ve got to stay ready for when your name’s called,” Singer said. “We’ll see. If coach calls my name, I’ll be ready. Nothing changes.”
If Singer starts, it will be alongside junior Tyrone Wallace, who has flourished under Martin. The 6-foot-5 point guard out of Bakersfield, Calif., is sixth in the Pac-12 with a scoring average of 17.2 points per game, eighth in rebounding (8.0 rpg), eighth in assists (4.67 apg, after averaging just 2.7 his first two seasons), fifth in three-point percentage (.500), ninth in assists-to-turnovers ratio (2.00) and second in defensive rebounds (6.33 rpg).
“I just think he’s being aggressive; I can’t speak on the previous two years,” Martin said. “Right now, he’s being aggressive, attacking the rim nad putting so much pressure on the defense. He’s the type of guy, one-on-one, I tell him that you’ve got to put pressure on the defense, and make those other guys defend you. He might not get his shot, but he’s able to make a play or get to the free throw line. That’s the biggest key. He does a tremendous job, especially in transition, of laying pressure down on those other guys.”
Wallace is the only player in the Pac-12 to rank in in the top-10 in the league in assists, scoring and rebounding. He has two double-doubles on the year, pulling down 10 boards and scoring 22 points in the opener against Alcorn State and netting 21 points with 10 rebounds against Fresno State. His 48.1 shooting percentage is the best of his career. He’s posted at least four assists in five of six games, after reaching that mark in 21 of the first 68 games of his career.
“Making good decisions, he does a good job with that, finding our big guys,” Martin said. “A lot of credit goes to our perimeter guys running fast, our big guys running to the rim to give him spacing to make plays.”
Wallace has been a revelation at the point guard spot – one that was expected to be very crowded before the season began – but he’s also been playing off the ball at times with Singer running the team. Another name will be thrown into the point guard mix this week – though Wallace is highly unlikely to come off the floor for any extended period of time – as freshman Brandon Chauca is finally eligible to play, as of Monday.
How will Chauca play into the guard rotation? With Bird (11.7 ppg) possibly out of the lineup due to that foot injury, he could see more time.
“Oh yeah, I expect him to get minutes,” Martin said. “He’s practicing at a high level, he’s conditioned his body, works extra in the morning and in the PM, he lifts weights extra. We expect him to play, plus, he’s a guy that can understand and a guy that makes shots. It’s a matter now of translating that to the floor.”
During practice on Tuesday, the Bears ran a lineup of Singer at the point, Wallace as the off guard, Mathews at the three, Christian Behrens at the four and center David Kravish at the five, preparing for not having Bird.
“We do different lineups all the time, and rarely do we have the same lineups in practice,” Martin said. “We do different lineups, different guys, because you play with everybody. I think the biggest thing is just guys being ready to play. Between Sam and Roger, if Jabari can’t go, probably one of those guys will get the nod.”
Of Moute a Bidias, Martin said that he’s done a great job of cutting, but his biggest key will to stay out of foul trouble.
“He takes himself out of games with his fouls,” Martin said. “If he can stay out of foul trouble, I think he’ll be fine, because he slashes, he’s aggressive and he can rebound the basketball, he makes plays going to the rim, so when he’s able to stay out of foul trouble, I think he’ll be fine.”
If Singer is in the lineup, it will be a case of Martin having two point guards on the floor, he said.
Wallace – along with Bird and Mathews -- account for 59.4% of the Bears’ scoring this year. Mathews is eighth in the league with an average of 15.5 points per game, and Bird is chipping in 11.7.
Cal is third in the Pac-12 in three-point shooting, shooting at a 39.4% clip, and on Tuesday, during three-point shot work, Singer in particular, along with Mathews, Chauca and Wallace, were striping from beyond the arc.
“With Sam, it’s a matter of playing aggressive and playing with confidence,” Martin said. “He’s a talented ballplayer, understands how to play. He has a good feeling on both ends of the floor. It’s just his confidence, being aggressive and being assertive.
“I just think the work he puts in, he’s got the chance to be a good player. It’s a matter of time and getting reps under his belt, and confidence. Confidence is his biggest thing. When you have that type of athleticism, and such a tremendous young man, it’s just a matter of confidence, and growing every day.”
Bird had been a large part of the Bears’ three-point success -- over a three-game stretch against Syracuse, Texas and Cal Poly, Bird went 8-for-12 from beyond the arc, before going 0-for-5 against Fresno State, the game in which he injured his foot.
The bedrock upon which the Bears have rested this season has been senior center Kravish, who’s averaging 12.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.33 blocks per game, ranking fourth in the Pac-12 in shots turned away. With his 14 blocks this season, Kravish now ranks second in school history with 191 swats (16 behind the all-time record).
DeCuire’s Grizzlies (2-3) are giving up 69.0 points per game, and opponents are shooting 45.2% from the field against them. Cal is coming off a too-close seven-point win against then 1-5 Bulldogs on Sunday, while Montana is coming in licking its wounds after shooting just 33.3% from the field at San Francisco on Sunday in a 76-57 loss.
“We’ve watched film on them, and they like to shoot threes,” said freshman big man Kingsley Okoroh, who has eight blocks to his name this season – good for 13th in the Pac-12. “They like to get up and down the floor, so we’ve got to be ready, contest their shots, close out on their shooters and play solid D.”
The Bears are shooting 47.3% on the season, good for fifth in the conference, and are second in the league in field goal defense, holding opponents to 35.5% shooting. Cal is even tougher defending beyond the arc, leading the league in three-point field goal defense at 25.8%.
“It’s not my long arms getting in the way,” Okoroh laughed. “Our guards have been really good, closing out – Sam, Jabari, Jordan and Roger – they’ve been getting after the shooters and contesting the shots. I’d like to see more of that when we play Montana.”
The Grizzlies started the season off with two losses, dropping the opener against Colorado State, 83-66, and pushing Boise State to two overtimes before the Broncos prevailed, 72-67. The only two wins on Montana’s resume so far are at Seattle (66-62) and at home against Carroll College (75-52).
Junior forward Martin Breunig, who played his first two seasons at Washington, leads team in scoring (13.8) and rebounding (7.2). Breunig played two minutes against the Bears in 2012-13, and did not record any statistics.
“I’ve watched them on film, and they’re a good team,” Martin said. “Travis does a great job with his guys, with their spacing, pushing the ball, setting screens, shooting. They shoot a lot of three-point shots and we have to really contest that three-point line.”
After Cal deals with the Grizzlies, they will head to Reno, Nev., for a Sunday 1 p.m. tilt with the Wolf Pack.