Cal gears up for trip to New York
November 17, 2009
BERKELEY – Many of Mike Montgomery’s players have never been to New York City, let alone played in Madison Square Garden.
“The mecca,” guard Patrick Christopher said.
Montgomery knows the 13th-ranked Golden Bears have a great opportunity to make a splash on the national scene come Thursday night, when they face Syracuse at the Garden in the 2K Sports Classic. If Cal wins, next up will be either North Carolina or Ohio State on Friday.
“I don’t think any of us are going to be as good as we are going to be later on, a month or two from now,” Montgomery said of the field. “It’s early in the season, but I don’t know if we played anybody of this quality in back-to-back games in the preseason last year. There’s a lot of real pluses with this game. I think for us, the ability to compete with these people 3,000 miles from home is going to be important.”
The Bears (2-0) should know a lot more about themselves after this trip East. They are picked to win the Pac-10 this season in Montgomery’s second year and have quite a preseason schedule. Cal has a date at No. 1 Kansas on Dec. 22.
But first things first. The Bears will have to contend with Syracuse’s stingy zone defense and big, physical players at every position.
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“Any time you get to play in an exempt tournament like this, you’re going to run into some pretty good people,” Montgomery said. “Our preseason schedule is very difficult. Hopefully it will make us stronger. Hopefully we’ll learn we’re capable of playing at this level.”
Montgomery has been impressed with his team’s “spirited” practices leading up to the cross-country trek.
“We kind of want to be a little more amped up than calm and on our heels,” said Christopher, one of three players averaging 15 or more points. “We want to be fired up.”
There’s plenty of reason for positive energy.
Last season in his first year in Berkeley, Montgomery took Cal from ninth place in the Pac-10 to the NCAA tournament. The Bears know they won’t be sneaking up on teams anymore, and Christopher, Jerome Randle and Theo Robertson will have to be more creative to get their points.
The Bears won 22 games last season and placed third in the conference, five spots above where they were picked to finish.
This season, winning these early games could do a lot for an NCAA seeding come March.
“You can’t ask for a better preseason schedule than we have,” said Markuri Sanders-Frison, Cal’s 6-foot-8 junior transfer from South Plains College in Texas. “We’re just ready to roll the ball out and get started.”
Montgomery has been busy preparing his team for an Orange defense that will trap all over the court for 40 minutes and make it tough to get open looks.
“It’s what they do for a steady diet,” Montgomery said.
On Nov. 9, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim became the eighth Division I coach to reach 800 victories when his team beat Albany 75-43 in its first game of the 2K Classic. The Orange are 2-0 after routing Robert Morris 100-60 last Wednesday.
“That’s a lot of wins,” said Montgomery, who is friends with Boeheim. “He’s done a great job in that setting. In that environment, he doesn’t have to leave home very often. He doesn’t have to because he has that big arena.”
Speaking of big arenas, Montgomery has lots of memories of Madison Square Garden – most notably the elephants kept in the back when the circus was in town and the stinky freight elevator. Montgomery spent two seasons coaching the NBA’s Golden State Warriors before coming back to the college game.
“They are excited about it, as they should be,” he said of his players. “It’s an interesting place. It’s all the things that you’ve read and heard about.”