With the WSU Cougars preparing to take on the Cal Golden Bears at 1 p.m. PT today, we got in touch with our friends at California Golden Blogs to gain some insight into just what has made their team so darn good this season.
And the Golden Bears are good: They're undefeated in conference play and a half game back of Arizona with three road wins already in hand.
You can find our answers to their questions here.
CougCenter: Kenpom's numbers suggest this might be Mike Montgomery's best team in Berkeley. Fair?
Nick Kranz: Probably. The Jerome-Randle-led early Monty years were meaningfully better offensively, but Monty didn't have the personnel to build a defense that would have made a good team great. And this year's team looks likely to be better than last year's team, mostly because this year's team has depth that wasn't there last year. And I'm not going to say that Cal is better off without Allen Crabbe, but the offense seems significantly more balanced and less predictable without him. At the very least, Cal is no longer screwed if their best player has an understandable off day.
LEastCoastBears: Past Mike Montgomery's Cal teams have had good starters like this year, but the biggest difference is the depth of this year's team (when healthy). In a few ways, this year's team is built for a potential second weekend run into the NCAA tournament. Besides the depth, another huge factor is the much better overall performance of the conference that a great run of Pac-12 play would allow the Bears to potentially have a much more favorable NCAA tournament seed than possible in the last few years. Since NCAA tournament success is often the indicator of how good a team is in hindsight, this team is definitely poised to achieve that in the Mike Montgomery era.
Scott Chong: Fair. As good as the Randle/Christopher/Boykins/Robertson team was that won the conference title, this team is bigger, deeper, and more athletic. Monty's teams really improve throughout the year, so it's possible they haven't reached their ceiling yet. If the light checks on for some of our young guys, we could be tough down the stretch.
CougCenter: The transition to life post-Allen Crabbe appears to have been seamless, thanks in large part to Justin Cobbs becoming the conference's premier point guard. What has made him even more effective this season?
Nick Kranz: Decision making, I'd say, which is admittedly a nebulous thing. But as is the case with many point guards, there's a balance to be found between scoring and setting up teammates, or running in transition vs. holding back for a half court set. And Cobb's decision making has been flawless this season. He has a great court relationship with all of Cal's returning starters, but particularly Richard Solomon
LEastCoastBears: One thing that you can count on with Mike Montgomery's team is that the players (provided that they are on the floor and playing rather than hidden on the bench to eventually transfer away) get better every offseason. That is certainly the case with Justin Cobbs. Cobbs is pretty deadly from just inside the 3-point line and in, but the biggest improvement is his decision making. Of course, he also has a better overall supporting cast around him this year, given the more balanced Cal offense. A big part of that has to do with the improvement Richard Solomon (see my answer to the next question).
Scott Chong: He's cut down on his turnovers and has really improved his decision-making as far as distributing versus scoring. What also helps is the emergence of our two bigs as viable inside threats. Last year, we couldn't finish inside for half the season and that made Cobbs/Crabbe feel like they had to carry the team with perimeter scoring.
CougCenter: Tell us who else has made large jumps from last season, and what's made them better. Tyrone Wallace sticks out to us.
Nick Kranz: Tyrone Wallace was already a solid defender, but his offense (particularly shooting) was hit and miss. Basically, he's made a jump in his shooting. He's more selective with his jump shot and finishing much more often at the rim.
The other player I'd identify is Richard Solomon, who has finally fully embraced his strengths: staying within 6 feet of the basket, vacuuming rebounds, contesting shots, and finishing dunks. Right now, he's top 10 in the Pac-12 in the following rate stats: D rebounding, O rebounding, blocks, steals, fouls drawn, free throw rate, and eFG%. I think he might be the best big man in the conference.
LEastCoastBears: Tyrone Wallace has definitely improved drastically since his understandably inconsistent freshman year. Wallace has the athletic length to be a great defender (which he showed at times last year), and has added a much more consistent shot making skill this year.
Another huge improvement comes from Cal senior forward/center Richard Solomon. Despite his length, Solomon had played away from the basket for much of his Cal career before this year. A dedicated mindset to dominate inside, Solomon has really become a force for the Bears. With better positioning, Solomon has been the beneficiary of a great number of Justin Cobbs passes (the two of them had played together in high school at one point as well, before Solomon transferred to play with Allen Crabbe) for easy slams.
Scott Chong: Richard Solomon is playing smarter, focused on rebounding, and has made huge leaps with his scoring ability around the basket. David Kravish is stronger, so he can hold position better in the paint. He's improved his elbow jumper and jump hook. Ty Wallace occasionally plays out of control. But he's worked hard on his jumpshot and has added a little baby hook with either hand. Last year, Jeff Powers couldn't hit any shots when given the opportunity and was a liability on defense. This year, he's solid on D and has been one of our most consistent deep threats.
CougCenter: Cal won three Pac-12 road games without freshman stud Jabari Bird, who was injured. He's back, which not so coincidentally corresponded with a pounding of Washington at home on Wednesday. What makes him special?
Nick Kranz: He has a special combination of shooting ability and athleticism, which makes him a threat to knock down a three or blow by his man to finish. That said, he's clearly rusty after missing a few weeks, and Monty will likely work him back slowly into a suddenly crowded rotation.
LEastCoastBears: Jabari Bird really didn't get to do much in the rout of Washington, and I suspect that it would take him another week to really get back to form. Still, Bird has already shown to be one of the best shooter on the team from his play in the non-conference season. Bird has picked up plenty of the slack from the departure of Allen Crabbe. Somewhat similar to Allen Crabbe, Bird has had some issue defensively, but one would think that he would patch those issues as he gains more experience.
Scott Chong: Jabari had nothing to do with the UW beatdown. He's a rare athlete with incredible body control and leaping ability. He's a bit streaky, but has the capability of gettinghot with his jumpshot. Basically, he's a born scorer who can create for himself. When he gets stronger and figures out where to be on offense/defense, he could be really good.
CougCenter: Cal's interior defense is among the best in the country, giving up just 43 percent on 2s for the season. And it wasn't built on weak nonconference competition, as it's at 44 percent in Pac-12 play. Tell us why.
Nick Kranz: Solomon and Kravish. They contest everything, and make up the best shot blocking duo in Cal history. Neither Solomon or Kravish appear particularly intimidating inside because they're rather slim, but they play taller than their 6'10 and 6'9'' height because they've got long arms and plenty of athleticism.
Beyond that, they have now played together for two seasons together, and they are both upper classmen. They know where to be on the court, and they know how to play off each other. When one is contesting a shot, the other is setting up for a rebound. When one is holding position down low, the other is providing help defense.
LEastCoastBears: Junior David Kravish is on pace to be the all-time Cal leader in block shots. Richard Solomon has also played well as the other big for the Bears. Given the experience of the two, they know that the team's success depends greatly on them not being in foul trouble and staying out on the floor. Always a very emotional guy, Richard Solomon has cut down on picking up stupid fouls (although some of the blame has to put on the erratic Pac-12 referees). It is very encouraging that both guys have already shown this year the ability to play aggressive defensively while in foul trouble
Scott Chong: Kravish and Solomon are strong enough that we never need to double the post. They're also both great shot-blockers so guys know they don't have to reach; we can just play solid position D and funnel them into the rim protectors. The team as a whole is athletic and long enough that we can switch off of screens. It's essentially fundamentally great defensive position and rotations anchored by shot blocking. Best I've seen at Cal.
CougCenter: Montgomery is no spring chicken. There are rumblings that retirement isn't too far off. How much stock do you put in those rumors?
Nick Kranz: The rumors probably started around when he had a cancer scare a few years ago. It's kind of a weird limbo where Monty would probably be honest saying that he doesn't plan to stick around for another decade, but that he also doesn't have any immediate plans to retire in the next couple years. There are certainly rumors that Pac-12 opponents have used his potential retirement as a negative recruiting tactic.
I suspect that he's still in it until this year's freshman class graduates, which is easily Monty's best recruiting class from a rankings perspective. After that? Who knows. Cal fans will mostly be focused on not taking a single moment of it for granted.
LEastCoastBears: Sure, Coach Mike Montgomery is getting older (67 in a month), but I think he still has quite a bit left in him. While he has suffered some health scare in the past, I think he has almost another decade of coaching left in him, depending on whether he can maintain and even improve the success of bringing great recruits.
Scott Chong: 6 cups. Add garlic, onions, carrots, beans and make yourself some soup.