California Basketball: Golden Bears' Bubble Bursts, Program Weaknesses Exposed This Season

By Casey Gagnon
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach Mike Montgomery (pictured) and his California Golden Bears squad knew that winning their Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal game Wednesday was not optional. The Bears were barely riding the NCAA tournament bubble after posting a 19-12 regular season record. Nonetheless, the Bears battled first half sluggishness in Las Vegas against a Colorado Buffaloes team that had already played the night prior while the Bears enjoyed a first round bye. Despite putting up a more aggressive fight in the second half, the Golden Bears fell to the Buffaloes 59-56, and they’ll be making travel plans for the NIT instead of the big dance.

All-conference point guard Justin Cobbs played brilliantly and led the second half comeback, leading all scorers with 21 points. However, as has been the story many times this season for the Bears, his supporting cast was slow to reciprocate. By the time Cobbs finally convinced his teammates to play like they wanted to win and keep their NCAA tournament hopes somewhat alive, it was all too little too late.  The Buffaloes were led by point guard Askia Booker, who finished with 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting. The Buffaloes also finished with a 38-29 rebounding advantage, and they crashed the offensive boards several times without much of a fight. For example, with the Buffaloes up 56-54 with just under one minute remaining, they missed a desperation three-point attempt with the shot clock winding down only to yank another offensive board, give themselves a fresh shot clock and shave valuable seconds off the clock late in the game.

By the time Cobbs’s desperation three-point attempt at the buzzer failed to even draw iron, questions likely arose in Montgomery’s mind as to why he hasn’t been able to bring the Bears’ basketball program up to the level of other Pac-12 programs. Many of these programs have soared in recent years and put themselves on the map and procure long overdue respect for the conference overall. This is a conference to which Montgomery is no stranger, previously spending 18 seasons at the helm of the Stanford Cardinal and then returning to the NCAA to assume head coaching duties is Berkeley in 2008 after a brief hiatus to coach the NBA‘s Golden State Warriors.

Perhaps Montgomery hasn’t come to terms with the reality that the Pac-12 (still only the Pac 10 during most of his conference coaching tenure) has broken out of obscurity and established itself as one of the nation’s premiere conferences, attracting more top-tier talent as coaches assure recruits that the conference is leaps and bounds above what was during Montgomery’s Palo Alto days. Perhaps Montgomery has failed to evolve as a coach as the Pac-12  has evolved as a conference. Perhaps he still thinks that what worked for his program at Stanford is going to yield similar success in the East Bay. Nothing could be further from the truth, and until Montgomery comes to terms with all of this and realizes that it’s time for him to change the way he does business, the Golden Bears won’t be dancing anytime soon and should in fact cherish their NIT berth.

In the worst case scenario, maybe it’s time for coach Montgomery to call it a career. His program can’t afford to remain stagnant as other teams in the conference take everything to the next level. The program at Cal isn’t regressing, but it’s not progressing either. Maybe this was all hunky dory in Palo Alto in the 1990s, but considering how this season turned out, not to mention the fact that the Bears haven’t gone deep in the NCAA Tournament even when Montgomery does lead them to the big dance, it’s obvious that either Montgomery needs to change how he runs his program or else basketball in Berkeley needs someone else on the sidelines.

Casey Gagnon is a writer for You can follow him on Twitter @SportsCasey, “like” him on Facebook, and add him to your network on Google.

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