Mike Montgomery and his California players consider last season an opportunity missed. The Golden Bears believe they should have won the inaugural Pac-12 regular-season title — and instead wound up in a tie for second.
With first-team all-conference guard Allen Crabbe leading a deep roster featuring three returning starters, Cal is determined to chase the championship this time around.
It will take playing more as a team to accomplish that, something Crabbe believes the Bears struggled with down the stretch.
Cal went 24-10 last season to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round 65-54 to South Florida in a most frustrating fashion.
"Unfortunately, we didn't win it the way we were supposed to," Crabbe said of the Pac-12. "One of our main goals was to win the conference. It was a really good feeling almost doubling our wins from my freshman season. I just feel like we all expected that, we knew how good we were as a team. It wasn't good team play toward the end of the season. That cost us winning the Pac-12 like we should have."
Montgomery, who begins his fifth season at Cal having taken his team to the NCAA tournament three times, would agree. The way he put it to his players: They didn't always trust each other to do the right thing. That, he said, kept the Bears from making the extra pass when needed, from staying on the same page with the game on the line.
"There was a little bit of, guys not confident in one another, not trusting one another toward the end," Montgomery said. "As a result of that I think there came some fatigue, physically and mentally. We in some ways really overachieved until the end, and then underachieved. You could just see that it wasn't the same team it was earlier in the year when we were fighting for everything."
Now, they're starting fresh — building this season around the catch phrase "Berkeley Represent."
No explanation necessary: win that conference championship.
It will be up to Crabbe, fellow junior guard Justin Cobbs and Co. to make that happen. Big man David Kravish also returns for a versatile and deep front court that allows Montgomery to mix and match. The coach is happy with the offseason strides made by forwards Bak Bak and Robert Thurman, while the guards are short-handed in practice with Ricky Kreklow working his way back from foot surgery that likely will keep him out until late November or early December. He sat out last season after transferring from Missouri.
Everybody is eager for the full roster to be together. Cobbs figures Cal might have more talent now.
"We've got to keep pushing and not focus on what happened last year," Cobbs said. "We have a great opportunity this year to maybe win it. That always fuels you, being that close, and now we know what it takes to get there."
Gone is Pac-12 player of the year Jorge Gutierrez, along with Harper Kamp.
Crabbe knows he will have to pick up even more of the load now. He led the Bears in scoring with 15.2 points per game last season, and also was Cal's leading rebounder with a 5.7 average and blocked 20 shots.
Montgomery is counting on Crabbe accepting a greater leadership role, and speaking up when necessary even though it's not in his nature to do so. Coming from Crabbe, Montgomery knows his team will listen.
"Team dynamics are really important, and it's hard to get kids to understand the intangibles," Montgomery said. "There's a lot to be said for people who want to play for one another. You always talk about it, you always emphasize it, and you hope to get a group of kids who feel that way. That's something we've got to work on. But it takes leadership, and Allen, for one, has to be in the middle of that leadership."
This summer, Montgomery agreed to a two-year contract extension through the 2015-16 season. The reward came after Montgomery revealed before last season that he had bladder cancer and surgery that left him cancer-free. He insists he is healthy and ready to go again.
He hopes to keep Cal a contender atop the conference. The Bears captured their first championship in 50 years when they won the Pac-10 in 2010.
Second-seeded Cal fell 70-59 to eventual champion Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals last season but still earned the program's third NCAA tournament berth of Montgomery's four-year tenure.
"I think we're projected third or fourth," Crabbe said. "It just makes you hungry. It just makes you want to come out there and prove people wrong. We have enough talent. The only thing we really need to do is learn how to play together."