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November 10, 2010

Countdown to Tipoff: Part 2 of 2

BERKELEY-They're easily the odd couple of this year's Cal basketball team.

Sitting next to one another, true freshmen Gary Franklin and Allen Crabbe couldn't be any more different. Crabbe is a long and lanky 6-6, 205-pounds, and quiet as a church mouse.

Franklin has an easy smile as wide as the court is long, with a laugh to match. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound guard is compact and well-muscled. According to head coach Mike Montgomery, Franklin hasn't yet met a shot he doesn't like.

But these two young men will both be in the starting lineup for much of the upcoming season, and they're already finding ways to improve one another.

"Allen Crabbe was the state player of the year in California, but he's a very cautious player. He doesn't like to miss shots, he doesn't like to make mistakes, and he needs to get more aggressive, because he's got ability. He's a good shooter," Montgomery said. "Gary Franklin is a great shooter. He can shoot it from deep. There's a lot of things he needs to learn to do better, but if you get him an open look, he's likely to score the ball. I know he'll shoot it."

When asked if the pair can find ways to meld together, if Crabbe can take some of Franklin's aggression, and if Franklin can learn from Crabbe's caution, the two give the best answer possible: a simultaneous, "Yeah."

"See? It works. Exactly," Franklin laughs. "I think, the thing I take from Allen is finding when and when not to attack. I think what Allen can learn from me is to be more aggressive, so I think we can help each other's game out, in that aspect."

Crabbe chimed in his agreement.

"I feel the same. Like Gary said, he's very aggressive, and he takes advantage of his get; he can shoot the ball well. He and I, we're known as shooters and scorers, and I have to learn how to be more aggressive," Crabbe said. "I'm off by myself not playing aggressive because I'm thinking about not making a mistake, but I can feed off his play."

Even during practice, Crabbe has had his coaches in his ear, telling him that he needs to take some more shots.

"The coaches on the side, they keep telling me that I'm passing up shots and I just need to be more aggressive, so I need to just attack more," Crabbe said.

Are they saying that to you, Gary?

"Uh, no," he smiles, inciting a peal of laughter from the media. "I feel like I would love to see Allen go out and just be who he is. I feel like, the more aggressive Allen is, the better we'll be as a team, and that'll free up shots for other people, him being aggressive. And, I feel like that's why I've been so aggressive, so that if teams do decide to have a strategy as far as not giving me shots, then that'll open things up for everyone else."

One thing is certain with this bunch: they're not afraid to laugh at themselves. As hard as they work, watching them on the floor, it's easy to see that they take their greatest joy in playing the game.

"I think, as a group, I'm just surprised at how humble they are, how willing to work they are," said junior post Harper Kamp. "You see freshmen come in a lot and have the accolades like most of these guys have, and they think a little more of themselves than they should and they don't work as hard, but this group has done a lot of work, and they know that they have a lot of work left to do. I commend them for that. They've been working their butts off."

With just 20 practices and only a few months together, the youngsters have gelled quite quickly, aided in part by the fact that Richard Solomon and Crabbe played together at Los Angeles Price and took home the state title during their senior season. Another big part of that cohesiveness is the freshman class's sense of humor, which rivals that of their head coach.

"Allen and I, we've known each other for a long time. I know Gary because I played on a traveling team with him, and Alex, Emerson and Justin, as well. We just like to have fun, on the court and off the court," Solomon said. "If somebody's doing something, everybody's just yelling, trying to energize them, trying to pick up the energy of the team. Off the court, we're all just goofy, just messing with people, just trying to get a laugh out of everybody."

Montgomery has made sure that the main task of whoever plays point guard at any point this season is to get the ball to not just Crabbe and Franklin, but the rest of the young shooters, as well. The only way to learn, of course, is by doing. Early on, there will be a lot of tinkering by the staff as they find the right balance in the personnel groupings. Right now, although Montgomery was loathe to name an official starting lineup, fans can expect to see Crabbe, Franklin, Jorge Gutierrez, Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison.

"I would say the two wing positions, I'd say we'll look at Gary and Allen there (tonight), but they may not play the best, and if that's the case, then maybe we have a different combination of people," Montgomery said. "The other thing, too, that we don't know yet, is what group plays best together-what's the best combination of players. Again, I only have one situation to draw from, and that was Saturday against St. Mary's. We were sluggish to start with, and then had different combinations of people in, and you looked at the tape and said, 'Well, wait a minute, these guys are really playing hard,' and it was not necessarily the guys who started the game."

During the scrimmage against the Gaels, the Bears at times looked to have a good handle on the game, and at others, looked very much like the young pack of cubs that they are, no doubt a contrast made all the sharper by the fact that St. Mary's reached the Sweet 16 last season.

"Whatever happened, part of it was an adjustment on our part-'Oh, I didn't know the game was played like this-so now guys are playing hard. It was a different combination of people, and that may well be the case, where you have different people who might be more comfortable coming off the bench, or different people that can relax and watch a little bit," Montgomery said. "I suspect that it will change. I would guess that your three staples right now would be Jorge, Harper and Markhuri, though it could be that Jorge would be on a wing and Brandon would be the point. That could be a way you could go."

The one phrase that seems to best embody this team was spoken at the Pac-10 Basketball Media Day by Montgomery, and remains true: they don't know what they don't know. On the one hand, that could mean plenty of early mistakes, which Montgomery said there will be on the defensive end.

"They make a lot of mistakes, but it's not from lack of trying. It takes, in my estimation, it takes a good two years to get a good man team, because there's just so many things that go into it," Montgomery said. "You don't really see good man-to-man teams until you've had them for a good couple years, and they then understand all the nuances of what you're talking about. Freshmen get screened. You'll be running something and you'll look and a freshman will be buried right in the middle of this kid's chest on a screen. That's fairly standard, fairly normal, I think every coach goes through that. They've got to learn how to get through screens. They've got to learn how to anticipate, they've got to learn how to physically get through screens, the communication aspect, the habits that you have to develop."

As such, this season will see a return to teaching the fundamentals, hammering them home to a group that consists of players that, for the most part, have not seen significant-or any-minutes on a college floor.

"Without question," he said. "With that other group, they were only going to go so far, as far as listening, so, like with any group, you balance what you're trying to get done in terms of wins and losses, which ultimately, is what your job is, instead of win a battle, lose a war. We gave them the flexibility to do what they did and it worked out."

While that not knowing what they don't know could lead to mistakes, there is also a flip-side. This team is so young, and so used to winning-with Emerson Murray having won a provincial championship up in Canada, Franklin having played for big-time Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei and Crabbe and Solomon having won a state title at Price-that they might not know that they're supposed to lose to teams like Kansas-which will visit Haas Pavilion on Dec. 22-or New Mexico, which reached the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament and comes to Berkeley in just 10 days.

"We've got to believe in ourselves," Kamp said. "At this point, it's hard for anyone else to look at us and think a whole lot of what we have, on paper. There may not be much there, but, as a unit, we're just going to go out every day and keep trying to get better, and believe that we can win every game that we play in, and that every day in practice, we're going to challenge each other. We have to. We have no choice, really."

With a schedule that includes 11 teams who participated in the postseason last year-eight of which made the Big Dance-this team will be tested early and often.

"The schedule is probably a little tougher than need be, given the circumstances. San Diego State, for example, with nine seniors back. Might not be the best year to play them," Montgomery said. "There's some other people in a similar situation-that tournament in Orlando. It's an exempt tournament, so you get four new games, but it's pretty loaded up. We didn't really know, at the time. These exempt tournaments have become pretty fashionable and now all the better teams are getting in them.

"We have our work cut our for us. We've got Kansas here, New Mexico here, Southern Mississippi. Someone scrimmaged them the other day and they said that they're really big and strong and mature, so it'll be interesting."

Solomon-who figures to start his fair share of games this year-has been taken under the wings of veterans like Kamp and Sanders-Frison, and believes that this year, while trying, could build a hearty cache of character that will pay dividends down the road as the freshmen learn and mature.

"We're going to have our ups and downs, no matter what, especially with such a young team," Solomon said. "But, ultimately, once the freshmen get the idea that this is college basketball, I think we're going to be a problem."

Kamp, for his part, will finally be back on the floor after two knee surgeries, and will sport a new number on his back, indicative of a feeling of rejuvenation that these youngsters have brought to the table.

"I'm not exactly a new man, but it's kind of a new career now that I've got another shot at this thing, so I decided to switch it up," Kamp said, of his switch to No. 22 from his old No. 43.

This offseason, Kamp worked as hard as anyone to get back in game shape, and could be a big difference-maker for the Bears.

"Harper's right in the middle of all of it," Montgomery said. "He's provided great leadership this summer. All these new kids came in and we had talked to the three returners about setting the tone and having a little different atmosphere, and they definitely set the tone. There was accountability in the weight room, everybody was working hard and that has carried through. He's been a big part of that. He is a very smart player. He understands what has to be done. That's not to say that he can do all of the things, but he knows where to be and he knows what the timing of things are and how to play. That's immeasurable in the game of basketball, in my mind, to have guys who really know how to play the game.

"He's not a dominant player. He's going to have a lot of good games. I would suspect that he's going to have to be close to a double-double guy for us, just because of the many opportunities he's going to have. It won't be a big double-double, but he has the ability to move away from the basket a little bit and he's a good defender inside. He's a good position rebounder. He's going to be a real key for us."

Also key will be the return of fellow big man Bak Bak, who has shown some remarkable accuracy from beyond the three-point arc during preseason practice after missing all last season with academic issues.

"He's got pretty good shooting touch. I remember last year, briefly, the times he was in, he was one of those kids that, when the lights went on, things seemed to happen that you hadn't seen him do before," Montgomery said. "He's been a pretty good offensive rebounder. He's not the most athletic kid, but he's getting better, and he's going to have to play."

Also showing some promise from long-distance is true freshman Alex Rossi. The 6-foot-6, 200-pound shooting guard displays a lot of maturity both with the ball in his hands and while setting himself and teammates up for shots. Rossi has been slowed lately with some bumps and bruises, but practiced on Monday and should see time tonight in the Bears' exhibition against Sonoma State.

"Alex can really shoot the ball," Montgomery said. "Physically, he's got to get stronger, he's got to get more physical. It's going to be hard on him sometimes. He'll be taken advantage of a little bit, physically, but he can really shoot the ball. He probably does as good a job as anybody of setting up screens, getting himself open. He's a very good shooter when he gets open. He's been slowed a little bit. He's had some injuries that he's had to deal with that have taken him off the floor."

Bak's presence in the rebound game will be crucial in order for Cal to get the ball into the hands of Rossi and his classmates early, and to touch off a transition game that is still a work-in-progress. If Bak and others are able to clean up down low, that could lead to some scoring opportunities with Cal's early-offense packages. But, for now, without speed like Jerome Randle's, the transition game could get a bit bumpy at times.

"Jerome could move the ball so quickly up the floor by himself that it kind of changed the tempo. We're not the fastest team in the world," Montgomery said. "Richard Solomon runs the floor pretty well, actually, for a big guy. He can really get out and go. One of the issues in transition that we're having a problem with is that, in order to really run, you've got to be able to rebound it cleanly. We're not able to rebound it cleanly. It's going to be a group effort on the boards, so it's not like we've got a 20-rebound guy that's just going to go get it and we can start running. Everybody's going to have to go in, block off and get physical, and try to help us, and that's going to slow it down a little bit.

"We've got a pretty good early offense package, I think. But, in order to do it, you at least have to get down there where the defense is having to get back, not waiting for you. Right now, I'm not sure we're doing much of that."

Without the scoring threats that departed at the end of last season, Montgomery has focused the bulk of practice on defense, sometimes spending two of the team's three hours on execution on that side of the ball.

"We maybe are going to have to try to keep people scoreless," Montgomery smiled. "That might be our best chance. I don't know that we've got-well I would guess that we don't have-a 20-point-type scorer on our team. You might be surprised if, in any given game, a guy has 20, let alone come close to averaging 20. But, I think we have seven guys, potentially, who could average double figures, depending on their minutes and the circumstances. So, it's going to have to be a team deal. It's not going to be where we can rely on any one person."

But, if this team has any strength, it's in the fact that it acts as a cohesive unit, and the players care for one another like a family. That even includes big brother smiling while Dad yells at little brother.

"It feels kind of good," laughed Sanders-Frison, at the fact that now, he's not the one getting yelled at in practice. "This is my first time returning, since high school, to the same team. It feels good. I feel comfortable. It feels like I'm home for the first time in the last couple years."

The Bears unofficially open the season tonight at 7:30 PM at Haas Pavilion with an exhibition against Sonoma State. Cal will tip off the 2010-11 schedule for real on Nov. 16 against Cal State Northridge, followed by a tilt against the Lobos on Nov. 20. The Bears will then hit the road for two games in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., before coming home for a Dec. 1 date with UC Davis.



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