March 4, 2012; Stanford, CA, USA; California Golden Bears guard Jorge Gutierrez (2) drives to the hoop against the Stanford Cardinal in the second half at the Maples Pavilion. The Cardinal defeated the Bears 75-70. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-US PRESSWIRE
The California Golden Bears were built to win a regular season crown. They had the two senior leaders in Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp plus returning Freshman of the Year Allen Crabbe. They were the only team in the conference that retained their crucial core that would help them win a conference championship
With two chances to do it, right there, right in front of them, they couldn't handle it.
Cal's offense and defense have fallen off their usual productive form, and Mike Montgomery seemed at a loss to figure out what to do for the first time all year. The Bears are dropping off from regular season championship contender to lone at-large candidate to hovering just above the bubble. Cal needs to find solutions in a hurry if they don't want to drop totally out of the race, develop some countermeasures to the issues plaguing the team now.
Or maybe he knows Cal is running low on countermeasures because there simply aren't any countermeasures to use.
Cal's limitations were shown early in non-conference play when they were smoked (and I mean barbequed) by their two biggest OOC challengers in UNLV and Missouri, and they've been further exacerbated with the academic suspension of Richard Solomon. Gutierrez and Kamp are hard workers and you'd love them to be the glue guys on any of your teams, but they aren't the greatest offensive players and have a tough time creating their own shots. In fact, none of the three core members have proven to be great creators; Justin Cobbs has been the main guy who can initiate offense, but at times struggles with his basketball senses about what to do on the court.
Those issues are compounded by an unproductive bench. With Alex Rossi still recovering from a hernia injury, Christian Behrens coming off a tough injury that'll probably take him a year to recover from, and Emerson Murray still quite not yet ready to handle backup minutes, the Bears have a three man bench of Brandon Smith (a capable point guard who's been going in the wrong direction in conference play), Robert Thurman (a decent big man player who is wholly dependent on good passes to create offense through dunks or quick post moves) and Bak Bak (similar to Thurman, although he can occasionally hit a jumper). None of the three are potent at all offensively, (Smith and Thurman being former walk-ons) putting more pressure on the starting unit to create.
The Bears are sidelined by these issues and have trouble keeping the offensive flowing. Only Crabbe is a natural outside shooter, which allows teams to seal off the interior and force Gutierrez and Cobbs to nail open jumpers, which they've been struggling with in their latest slump. With Kamp and David Kravish forced outside because they aren't great post presences, the offense diminishes. This in turn causes issues for our defense when we're forced into Js or turnovers and can't get back to defend in time.
Add in the fact the starters are playing 35+ minutes a game and they seem to be running low on fuel compared to all the other deep Pac-12 squads, or more importantly prone to mental lapses. Crabbe and Gutierrez are a missing jumpers they usually make. Cobbs is making bad decisions on a more frequent basis. Kamp's jump shot isn't quite as efficient as it used to be. Against Stanford and Colorado, the team missed point-blank shots. More importantly, defenses seem to be better-equipped to counter the shorthanded Bears--it's much easier to gameplan against a five-six man team.
Cal has gone as far as they can with the team they've got, and Montgomery deserves a lot of credit for keeping them in the conference title discussion. However, with few offensive options to make life easy for this team, with no bench to speak of, and deeper teams gunning for them game after game, perhaps this is one team that might be gassed out in trying to be champions. Montgomery has rolled the dice with a five man rotation in an all-out bid to grab the conference title, and this strategy could be biting back on him at the worst possible time as the team looks more erratic and fatigued by the game.
Then again, crazier things have happened at the Pac-12 tournament. Cal may not be built to win it, but if they rediscover their mojo and earn favorable matchups, who knows what could happen? The Bears have beaten every team in this tournament on their side of the bracket at least once, so they know what victory tastes like against this team.