California is coming into Corvallis Thursday night for Oregon St.'s Pac-12 Conference home opener. The Golden Bears were the pre-season favorites to win the conference this year, and sure enough, they are off to a great, 12-3 start, including a 2-0 conference mark after sweeping the LA schools last weekend in Berkeley.
But are the Bears where they thought they would be at this point? What should Beaver fans expect from California, who have most of the players back that produced a sweep of Oregon St. last season?
Unless you are an absolute hoops junkie, it can be hard to keep up with how other teams in the conference are doing, especially with bowl games and the holidays to consume your attention. So we got together with NorCalNick, one of the regular writers with Californiagoldenblogs.com to get an update on just how Golden the Bears are this season.
Assess Allen Crabbe's progress. Last year, he was a great, almost scary, scoring threat, but seemed to not be in the flow of the team at times. For a freshman, that was understandable, and as expected; it takes time to learn what everyone else is doing. How is his progress going this season? Has Coach Montgomery put anything new into the game plan for him?
Jorge Gutierrez seems critical to everything Cal does, not just emotionally (no one plays harder than Jorge), but also system wise. Both the defense and offense seem to be tied to what he is doing, whether he has the ball or not, when the Bears are playing well. Does Oregon St. (and other opponents) have to focus first on the matchup with Gutierrez before worrying about anything else? What does California do differently if/when Gutierrez isn't on the floor, or isn't effective for whatever reason?
I would say that Allen is playing at a very similar level to how he finished last year, which is arguably a cause for concern amongst Cal fans who were anticipating perhaps another leap in production.
What he is, is arguably the best pure shooter in the conference, as well as an excellent defensive rebounder and solid, if unspectacular, defender. Monty has made it clear that getting open shots for Allen is a major component of Cal's game-planning, although Allen has struggled at times when defenses make it a point to deny him solid looks.
Cal still very much relies on Jorge to do things both obvious and hidden, but I'd argue that the emergence of Justin Cobbs has lessened the burden Jorge needs to carry. We'll see how things develop in conference play, but so far Jorge's minutes are slightly down because Cobbs adds another excellent ball-handler to the guard rotation, and he largely fills Jorge's role on both ends when he's getting a breather.
Still . . . It's all about Jorge, on both ends of the floor. He's our best penetrator and finisher, and his ability to pierce the defense is what opens things up for other players to get good looks. On defense, he'll probably spend plenty of time trying to slow down Cunningham. And on the road, against a good team like OSU I would expect him to play at least 35 minutes, if not more.
It's tough to plan for Jorge because he's a jack-of-all-trades type of player who does most things competently and doesn't rely on one or two skills to impact games. But if you can keep him from penetrating (by himself or off of high ball screens) that's a big part of the battle.
Harper Kamp appears to be having another good year, but we thought he might have a monster year this season, and that hasn't really happened, at least yet. In looking at his numbers for answers, his production per minute is still pretty high, but his minutes seem to be a little below what he has played at times in the past, and what some other Bears are playing. Is this Monty trying to make sure he doesn't run Kamp's tank out of gas before the end of the game, or the season? What's his role going to be through the conference season?
I think the answer is twofold. For one, your speculation is correct - Harper has never had great knees and Monty is certainly watching his minutes. But beyond that, Harper is a senior now, and the player he was as a junior is the player he is as a senior, which is a guy who doesn't have great athleticism or size, but will continue to get his points with great positioning, passing and movement within Cal's offense.
But more than that, there are at least two players that have priority for shots in Cal's offense. Gutierrez and Crabbe (and to a lesser extent, Justin Cobbs) are all bigger focal points and Monty would probably prefer them taking shots. Harper is more of a poacher than a first-choice scorer, but what he does he does very well.
Team depth seems to be a concern for the Bears, as the starters are consistently playing a lot of minutes, and some of the reserves are playing in some games and not others. Can you assess the Cal bench, and how Monty is using it, for us?
If Richard Solomon is healthy (a big if) that helps immeasurably, because it means there are seven players Monty trusts to play heavy minutes if necessary - the usual starting five, plus David Kravish as a big off the bench and former starter Brandon Smith as the guard off the bench.
Still, a seven player rotation isn't exactly deep, and it means Cal can't afford any injuries. You might see guard Emerson Murray for a few minutes, and Bak Bak and/or Robert Thurman in if Kamp, Solomon or Kravish get in serious foul trouble.
Tell us about the summer basketball trip. What did Cal hope to get out of it? And how did it work out? Did it contribute significantly to the strong start the Bears are off to?
The biggest thing it told Cal fans was that transfer Justin Cobbs and freshman David Kravish would be able to contribute immediately. Various entrenched starters missed time with minor injuries and it allowed newer players to get minutes, and Kravish and Cobbs in particular excelled.
Of course there were concerns about the level of competition the Bears were playing in Scandinavia, but it turns out that perception was more or less reality in this case. Hopefully the experience younger players off the bench got will pay dividends down the line.
Finally, how about a football question. What is the state of mind at Cal after their bowl loss? Should we expect to see anything significant in the way of change heading to next season? (Given that a lot of Pac-12 teams not named Oregon St. are making significant changes these days...)
I wouldn't expect any major coaching or personnel changes, but of course the big change will be a renovated stadium and training facility that has already been a major boost to recruiting.
I don't know how much those changes will immediately impact results on the field, but the new stadium will be much more comfortable for home and visiting fans alike. That's right, Beaver fans, there's no longer a major incentive to hold it for a full four quarters if you visit with your team in 2013!
It should be an interesting match up Thursday night!