Cal still hopes to bring Pac-10 respect

For the last three months, Mike Montgomery has had to hear the same broken record play over and over again.

He's heard it on the radio, and he's heard it on TV.

He's even read it in the newspaper.

"The Pac-10 is weak."

"The Pac-10 is a one-bid league."

It's been nothing but those kinds of criticisms for the Pac-10 this season -- even before Montgomery returned to Berkeley to start his second year at Cal.

Therefore, he knows that few happen to see it his way.

"It's a good league," he told me after Saturday's 72-58 win over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.

"It always has been."

Montgomery has spent 20 years in the Pac-10 -- most of them across the Bay at Stanford -- and has certainly garnered his fair share of accomplishments in that time.

From a Final Four appearance in 1998 to a 31-3 overall mark in 2001, the Cardinal had become one of the nation's elite programs under Montgomery's watch.

So with those kinds of memories embedded in his coaching resume, you know the former Stanford general has some affection for the conference.

Yet the truth is, things couldn't be much worse for the Pac-10 than they are right now.

That's evidenced by the fact that the league hasn't had a team in the Associated Press Top 25 for the last four weeks and doesn't appear to have one returning to the poll any time soon.

Meanwhile, five teams sit in second place in the Pac-10 standings, all just one game back of the Golden Bears at 6-5.

And if parity continues to flood the conference, the Pac-10 may end up with just one team in this year's NCAA tournament.

That team, most likely, will be Cal.

"It's going to be difficult if we all bunch up," Montgomery said.

Besides the Bears, no other Pac-10 team remains worthy of an at-large bid at this point in time.

USC, which few thought could contend for a Pac-10 title in Kevin O'Neill's first year, left the conference with a bit of hope after adding point guard Mike Gerrity in December and winning eight in a row as a result.

But less than a day after starting conference play with two straight wins, the university announced that the Trojans wouldn't be allowed to compete in postseason play this season as a punishment for the program's illegal recruitment of O.J. Mayo two years ago.

Defending champ Washington has stumbled in the Pac-10 and has yet to win a road game this season despite a current four-game winning streak.

"Winning is hard -- for everybody," Montgomery said. "I don't think there are any freebies or free lunches in the league.

"It's better than people are going to want to give it credit."

Unfortunately for Montgomery, people across the country still aren't giving the Pac-10 much credit five weeks before Selection Sunday.

Cal, which currently stands alone at the top of the conference standings, has already lost four Pac-10 games and has yet to win a game over a Top 25 team this season.

"It's been rough," senior point guard Jerome Randle said.

"We can't worry about what's happened in the past," senior guard Patrick Christopher added.

It's not as if the Bears haven't had their chances.

Montgomery challenged his team early on in the season, taking the Bears out to New York City in November for the 2K Sports Classic after home wins over Murray State and Detroit.

But a team that was playing without one of its top players, Theo Robertson, didn't have enough firepower to get past Syracuse and Ohio State in Madison Square Garden or New Mexico in The Pit more than a week later.

"We probably should have won at New Mexico," Montgomery said. "We've played a very difficult schedule.

"You have to do it early, and we didn't."

Since its loss in Albuquerque, Cal has had only one other opportunity to earn a Top 25 win -- and that came in a road loss against top-ranked Kansas in which the Bears were tied with six minutes remaining in the second half.

"I still think we haven't played our best basketball," Christopher confessed after securing a weekend split down in Southern California.

This, after all, was a team that was picked to win the Pac-10 for only the second time in school history and came into the 2009-10 campaign with its first AP preseason ranking since 1995-96.

Nevertheless, Montgomery understood coming into the season that the expectations for his team were too high.

Some even predicted, with a deadly perimeter trio featuring Randle, Christopher and Robertson, that the Bears could go as far as the Elite Eight.

Those predictions, however, were anything but realistic for a team that has been plagued by injury -- Harper Kamp's season-ending knee injury is just one example -- and has few offensive weapons on the interior besides 6-foot-8 senior Jamal Boykin.

"We're fragile," Montgomery admitted. "We don't really have a physical presence, so we have to shoot the ball.

"And that's fragile."

But while Cal hasn't necessarily lived up to its preseason hype, the rest of the conference hasn't exactly done it any favors.

That means come March, Cal quite possibly could be lone Pac-10 representative in the field of 65 -- and there's nothing the Bears can do about it now.

"I can't help that," Montgomery quipped.

"It is what it is," Christopher remarked.

Still, that's quite a lot of pressure for a program that hasn't won a conference championship in 50 years.

"The only pressure we feel is the pressure for ourselves," Robertson said. "We're just disappointed that we haven't played up to our level."

So is the rest of the Pac-10.