BERKELEY, Calif. — As much as they try to ignore those who doubt them, members of Cal's basketball team admit they're starting the new season with something to prove.
They see that the media picked them seventh in the Pac-10 preseason poll. They read that they'll struggle to replace graduated stars Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson. And they hear TV analysts suggest that this will be a rebuilding year.
Energized by an early chance to prove those predictions wrong and earn a statement victory, the defending Pac-10 champion Bears pounced on a New Mexico team that has won back-to-back Mountain West titles. They played stingy defense, capitalized on transition opportunities and controlled the offensive glass, rolling to an 89-64 victory that exceeded everyone's expectations except perhaps their own.
"I think that does fuel us, people doubting us," junior forward Harper Kamp said after Saturday's win. "I look around and I don't doubt any of my teammates. We just have to go out there and believe in each other."
If a combination of a heavy thunderstorm and a humbling football loss to Stanford robbed Cal of its usual enthusiastic home crowd, at least the Bears provided some much-needed hoops therapy for the 7,158 diehards who did show up Saturday night. By the end of a 16-1 second-half spurt that transformed a two-point Bears lead into a 62-45 rout, even the shell-shocked football fans still clad in "Beat Stanford" T-shirts were on their feet applauding the home team.
Shining the brightest for Cal was Kamp, who scored 25 points and flourished in the post in just his second game back after missing all of last season with a knee injury. He received help from the backcourt trio of versatile junior Jorge Gutierrez, sharpshooting freshman Gary Franklin and pass-first point guard Brandon Smith, who combined for 45 points and 14 assists and did a masterful job keeping New Mexico's speedy guards out of the lane.
"It was a pretty encouraging night all the way around," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "Of all the practices and games we've had, this was clearly our best effort in terms of doing what I think we need to do to be successful."
Whether it's his bruising, frontcourt-heavy Stanford teams of the late 90s and early 2000s or last year's guard-oriented attack at Cal, Montgomery has proven to be a master of implementing a system well-suited to his talent. This year's quick-strike approach seems to be an attempt to mask some half-court scoring deficiencies by parlaying the Bears' stellar defense into chances for transition buckets.
In their preseason practices, Cal repeatedly practiced a drill called "bang-bang," in which the defensive team must get a stop and then launch a fast break as quickly as possible the other direction. The Bears showcased what they learned Saturday night by forcing 18 turnovers and limiting New Mexico to just 7-for-24 shooting in the second half, turning many of those stops into transition opportunities.
"Instead of just getting stops, we focus on getting a stop, pushing the ball in transition, getting a good look and hopefully scoring," Kamp said. "If we're getting a good shot after we get a stop, I think that helps us a lot."
What enables Cal to be such a strong defensive team is size down low, length on the wings and quickness at the point of attack. That starts with the 6-foot-3 Gutierrez, the Bears' defensive stopper off the bench last year.
Montgomery was wary entering the season that Gutierrez might not provide as many rebounds, steals and hustle plays this season if he also had to run the point, but thus far the junior appears to be proving he can handle both roles.
In one second half sequence against New Mexico, Gutierrez absorbed an intentional foul on his way to the rim from rock-solid power forward Emmanuel Negedu. In another perhaps more impressive sequence, he swipes the ball from a Lobos guard and saved it to a teammate for a dunk as he fell into his team's bench.
"Coach Montgomery has his opinion and I respect that, but I play the way I play every time," Gutierrez said.
Half-court offense likely won't be a strength of Cal's this season unless the Bears' youthful backcourt learns to consistently create offense the way last year's seniors could, but the team did take some baby steps against New Mexico.
Franklin buried two of his four three-pointers off kick-outs from Smith and Richard Solomon during Cal's decisive second-half run. And the Bears' tall frontline gobbled up 12 offensive rebounds and turned many of them into put-backs.
A challenging schedule beginning with next week's Old Spice Classic will provide Cal ample opportunity to prove that this victory was no fluke, so for now the Bears were content to smile and relish a quality early win.
"I'm excited," Kamp said. "It's just the first step. That's what we talked about after the game. We were just excited about how well we played together and how hard we played."