Guard Play Is Key for California Bears in NCAA Tournament Game With Maryland

John Feinstein and Tony Kornheiser discuss Maryland's seed and chances in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Video by Atkinson & Co.
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Stanford basketball squad Mike Montgomery oversaw in 2001 was anchored by two imposing post players who often gave the Cardinal a decisive advantage on the boards and in half-court sets. Jason and Jarron Collins -- 7 feet and 6 feet 11, respectively -- led Stanford to the region final, where it fell to Maryland by 14 points. Montgomery was known in those days for his ability to coach big men.

Eight years later, Montgomery guides a California team dependent upon the play of its guards. The Golden Bears rank No. 1 in the nation in three-point shooting, and now Montgomery is heralded for his ability to coach those who man the perimeter.

"That's always been his trademark ability," said Eric Reveno, who was an assistant under Montgomery for seven seasons at Stanford, "adjusting his style to the talent that he has."

California and its chameleonic coach will play Maryland (20-13) on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Kansas City, Mo. The Terrapins are an interesting matchup for the Golden Bears, Montgomery said, because of the similarities the two teams share.

Out of necessity, California (22-10) operates a guard-oriented lineup that prefers to score in transition. But whereas Maryland is adept at creating its transition opportunities via high-pressure defensive schemes that produce turnovers, the Golden Bears are more risk-averse. And this is where Montgomery's imprint stamps through the makeup of a roster he did not create.

"They want to get the ball back, but they're willing to be patient and disciplined," said Reveno, now the head coach at Portland, which lost to California by 20 on Dec. 28. "The risk, for them, is not worth it. They're not out there trapping or anything like that. They'll force you to miss and then spread the floor after a rebound."

Those responsibilities -- to force the miss, to grab the rebound and then to spread the floor -- fall on the shoulders of a trio of guards vital to California's success. Jerome Randle, a hyperactive 5-10 point guard, orchestrates the furious runs. Though Randle (18.4 points per game) cannot always shake his shoot-first instinct, Montgomery lauded his improved understanding of how to get his teammates involved in the flow of the offense.

Randle's 4.9 assists per game do not overshadow his 46.8 percent three-point shooting, but it's a step toward the type of balance his coach seeks.

Joined by guards Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson, Randle heads up the most accurate three-point shooting team in the country. California has connected on 43.4 percent of its three-point attempts, not that Montgomery gets carried away with such numbers.

"I think that's a little bit of a misnomer, in terms of being the top three-point shooting team in the country," Montgomery said. "I think that's statistics. We really got off to a fast start and our percentage was way up, almost uncanny, and then we've kind of come down to earth a little bit the last half of the season when people have scouted and figured out what we need to do. . . . We're pretty comfortable with the shots that we're taking because that's what we have to take."

The Golden Bears have to rely on outside shooting because their interior presence, Montgomery said, leaves much to be desired. It's not that California lacks size -- starting center Jordan Wilkes stands 7 feet, 225 pounds -- it's that those big bodies have not yet realized their potential.

Reveno said Wilkes is "not very physical" and that California's inside presence comes, instead, from 6-8 forward Jamal Boykin.

"They don't have a real dominant guy inside," Reveno said, "but they find ways to get around it."

Much as Maryland does, California compensates by asking its guards to venture into the post for rebounds. Christopher (6-5) and Robertson (6-6) each average 3.8 boards per game, nearly as many as Wilkes (4.0).

Montgomery, who is in his first season at California, returned to college basketball after a four-year hiatus, two of which were spent coaching the NBA's Golden State Warriors. He said he didn't necessarily miss coaching at the collegiate level, but the time off might have provided broader perspective.

He understands his team is not built to dominate on defense or on the boards. He understands that puts more pressure on his shooters to come through when scoring opportunities arise.

And Montgomery understands he'll have to keep adapting his style, keep finding ways around his team's deficiencies, for at least a little while longer.

"He just wants a solid and balanced team," Reveno said. "It's not like he wants to be small and athletic or big across the board and walking it up the court. His style of play is just like his personality -- nothing extreme, just solid and fundamental."

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