This is in praise of Mike Montgomery. No, his Cal team is not great, surely not memorable. His Bears probably won't get invited to the NCAA tournament — will settle for an NIT bid unless they unexpectedly go wild in the Pac-10 Tournament.

The Bears are middle of the road and they are young and have no depth. Four players from last season's league-champion squad — players they thought they'd have this season — left or got thrown off the team. One of them, freshman guard Gary Franklin, unexpectedly quit in early January, much to Montgomery's surprise.

Which meant Montgomery had big problems. Except he never has big problems because he is among the best college basketball coaches in America.

Here's a quick note on Montgomery: It took him a long time to get over the Warriors. He had been fired and, in his mind, he failed — although just about everyone failed who coached for Chris Cohan. But, OK, Montgomery is a college coach, not a pro coach and he was out of his element in the NBA. He should be over his humiliation by now because he is in the proper context and he's terrific.

In recent weeks, he outcoached Ben Howland. UCLA came into Haas Pavilion doing well, doing just great, and the Bears beat them. The Bruins could not handle Jorge Gutierrez who drove the lane nonstop. Gutierrez is a good player but he doesn't remind you of Chris Mullin at St. John's.

And just the other day, Cal played Stanford in Berkeley, two teams of the same standing. The Cardinal had defeated the Bears the first time around and the game should have been close. But Montgomery, who uses a zone defense, came out man-to-man and that knocked Johnny Dawkins and the Cardinal for a loop and the Bears slaughtered Stanford 74-55. It was a sad/thrilling sight to see one coach completely dominate another coach.

Afterward, Montgomery met the media. He is a sarcastic guy. Senior Markhuri Sanders-Frison had just put his coach into perspective for the media. "Coach can get on (the young players) pretty bad," Sanders-Frison said, "and when they get out of the huddle I just reassure them that they are doing great and have a bright future."

So, Montgomery is not what you'd call a hand-holder. But when asked how his team did this season, he gushed they were "fabulous." He said of his Bears, "We're just a gritty group of guys. We're not going to win any glamour contests. We're a gritty group of guys and our roles are defined now."

Montgomery also is defined. Give him a roster of college players and he will understand them and define them and make them play to their ability. In the long history of Cal hoops, this season may seem minor. But it is one of Montgomery's best and you should remember that.

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