Mike Montgomery may be some kind of wizard.
Despite landing recruiting classes that have been wholly underwhelming over the last five years, Montgomery has led Cal to the NCAA tournament in four of the last five years and to consecutive No. 2 finishes in the Pac-12.
And here come the Bears again, 12-4 and winners of four straight, despite the loss of their lone five-star prospect, Jabari Bird, to an ankle sprain against Creighton on Dec. 22.
Now Bird is expected back for the team’s matchup tonight against Washington, as if it will matter. Montgomery will just wave his magic wand, and the Bears will fall into line — and maybe the Huskies’ legs will be twisted into pretzels.
“Coach has a system, a philosophy he really believes in, and he’s been really successful,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said of his Pac-12 colleague. “Sometimes in recruiting, because it’s out there for everyone to see, people will look at who you didn’t get and not who you did get. What Coach and his staff do is recruit players who fit their system, so when they get them, they’ve already bought in. They are coming to play a specific way for coach Montgomery, for his staff. They deserve a lot of credit for selecting guys who fit that system.”
Montgomery’s foray back into the college game has been a success, mainly because of that buy-in.
After a brilliant run at Stanford from 1986 to 2004 — one that included a 393-167 record and nine NCAA tournament appearances, including the 1997-98 Final Four and the 2000-2001 Elite Eight — Montgomery left for the head gig with the Golden State Warriors. Back-to-back 34-48 records led to his firing.
He didn’t go far. Cal came calling, and the Bears have been consistently good since then, even if recruiting services don’t show favor.
“Mike has had a lot of experience getting players to step up and play a role,” said Oregon coach Dana Altman, whose Ducks were toasted by the Bears on Thursday, 96-83. “He’s done a good job — (Jordan) Mathews had a big game against us. Coming in, he was struggling a little bit. He got his first couple shots down, and had a career game against us.”
Mathews is just the latest diamond in the rough to look polished for the Bears.
The freshman guard out of Santa Monica, Calif., had four double-digit games before the Oregon matchup, but no one pegged him for his 32-point explosion on 10-of-14 shooting against the Ducks. He had two points in the previous game, and two points in the following game.
That’s the thing — year in, year out, no one predicts much out of the Bears — except maybe opposing coaches, who’ve learned not to underestimate Montgomery.
“He does a couple things — he does a good job of player development, and prior to player development, he finds the type of guys who fit his system and coaches them to his system,” Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said. “But what I think is really nice about his teams is that they play extremely efficiently. They make very few mistakes, very few turnovers. They get the shots they want to get. While his recruiting classes aren’t blowing the blogs up, he does a really good job of getting his guys to do what he wants them to do.”
That talent goes underappreciated these days, as the coaches who haul in ready-made NBA players get the ink and the pub.
He simply goes about his business, tabs the players who won’t cower under his tutelage, and wins.
“Obviously the player has to be talented — Jorge Gutierrez played with a lot of grit, but he was more talented than people thought he was,” Romar said. “I know there are probably some kids who are really talented that they might not even go after. It wouldn’t work. They wouldn’t come in the door with the buy-in. They’re going to go somewhere the program is going to do them a favor.
“Coach doesn’t buy into that.”