UC Irvine (0-0) vs. No. 24 Cal (0-0) @ 7:30 p.m. in Berkeley, CA

In anticipation of the official start of the college basketball season for UC Irvine, Kodiak and Norcalnick from California Golden Blogs were kind enough to exchange Q&A’s with Zotcubed. After you’re done reading the synopsis on Cal, head over to their site (linked above) and check out my responses to their questions regarding the Anteaters. To anyone visiting from Cal land, thanks for dropping by.

1. Cal has some preseason hype this year being ranked in the Top 25. What’s the main difference between this year’s team and last year’s NIT squad? All of the returning experience? Justin Cobbs?

Kodiak: Our best young players from last year (Crabbe and Solomon) have some experience and should be much improved.  When you add Kamp and Jorge as seniors + the underrated Brandon Smith, that’s a really solid starting five.  It’s a little early to know what we’ve got with Cobbs, but he looks like he could really add another dimension to the team with his ability to get into the paint.  If our reserve players are able to provide competitive minutes, we might have something.
Norcalnick: Justin Cobbs will be the biggest personnel addition, and might be the difference between a good year and a great year.  But it’s more about experience and defined roles.  Cal really struggled to start last year, but they surged during conference play when Allen Crabbe was fully integrated into the offense.  They went from scoring 5 points in the first half against Notre Dame to perhaps the best offense in the Pac-10 in the second half of the season.
2. What makes Jorge Gutierrez so good? Is he Cal’s best NBA prospect?
Kodiak: Jorge plays harder than anyone I’ve ever seen.  He’s a smart player who can beat you defensively, passing the ball, or scoring.  Each year, he’s improved his game to where he’s a multi-dimensional threat.  I’m not sure if he has the size to be Cal’s best NBA prospect.  Right now, he’d have to play point, and he’s not exactly a traditional point guard.  I wouldn’t bet against him, however.  In terms of classic NBA measurables, Allen Crabbe will get a look because of his ability to shoot the ball and Richard Solomon has the height and athleticism that could get him a look if he keeps developing.
Norcalnick: I’m really tempted to say that it’s because he wants it more, which is both a horrible cliche but also pretty much true.  He runs himself ragged in every game, gets into the other teams’ head, and generally works harder in every phase of the game than anybody else.  Nobody would rave about his skill set or athleticism – he’s not big, tall, strong or long, he isn’t especially fast, he rarely dunks, he doesn’t have an amazing jump shot . . . and yet he was Cal’s leading scorer.

Cal’s best NCAA prospect is almost certainly Allen Crabbe – he’s a truly gifted pure shooter and he is closer to the more prototypical size and athleticism that NBA scouts want to see.  But I’d honestly be a little surprised if Jorge doesn’t work his way onto an NBA roster as a scrappy change-of-pace guard off the bench for a team that appreciates his style of play.

3. Prediction: who will be the leading point scorer against UCI?
Kodiak: Allen Crabbe.
Norcalnick:  I agree, it’s Allen. He’s the one player where you know he’s going to get his points – he’s too good a shooter to have many off-nights and much of the offense is predicated on getting him shots.  There also isn’t a ton of depth behind him, so he tends to play more minutes than anybody else on the roster.
4. It will be interesting to see UCI’s Russell Turner square off against his old mentor. How would you describe Coach Montgomery’s coaching style since returning from the NBA? Is the Cal attack similar to Golden State’s running up-tempo style?
Kodiak: I’ve really been impressed with Mike Montgomery’s ability to adapt his system to his personnel.  I think he prefers to play half-court ball where he pounds it inside high-low, or wing to post to play inside out.  But because he hasn’t had a dominant low-post scorer, he’s developed a motion offense that uses a lot of screens and curls while mixing in feeds to the post.  On defense, he’d like to play man.  But without the depth and athletes to do so, we played a lot of zone last year.
Norcalnick: Monty has seemed to change his style a bit from his classic Stanford teams – there’s been a greater focus on guard play – but I think that has more to do with him molding to the strengths of his players than anything else.

Cal played faster last year than they did in Monty’s first two years in Berkeley.  Lots of that was Jorge’s impact on the offense – he loves to push the ball whenever he can.  But I don’t think I’d describe the offense up-tempo even though they aren’t afraid to run.

5. Former Cal players D.J. Seeley and Omondi Amoke are suiting up this year for UCI’s rival, Cal State Fullerton. What’s the back story behind their defections, along with Gary Franklin? Is it business as usual in Berkeley, or has there been turmoil recently?
Kodiak: D.J. Seeley wasn’t one of Monty’s recruits and got in the doghouse for his lack of effort on defense.  Omondi Amoki would have started last year, but he got into off the court trouble.  It is rumored that he was kicked off the team for being involved in some type of incident involving theft.  He also wasn’t one of Monty’s recruits.  It’s hard to explain Gary Franklin.  He was highly touted and signed by Monty as a combo guard.  Monty saw him as a shooting guard.  Franklin wanted to run point.  No one told Franklin that there was only one ball on the court and that he’d have to occasionally share it.  When Monty finally started benching him for jacking up all manner of ill-advised shots, Franklin bolted.  He seems to have had a family member or advisor whispering in his ear that he should be a one and done type of player with the right coach and system.  I don’t really think there’s anything here with regards to turmoil.  Just young men making young decisions who weren’t a good fit for our program.
6. If UCI is going to make it a close game, what area is Cal’s biggest weakness?

Kodiak: Cal’s man to man defense and rebounding are still suspect.  I’m just not sure if UCI has the depth to exploit issues on the glass.  If one of your guards can get hot, we’re still a work in progress with closing out on the perimeter as well as fighting through screens.  Also, there’s a fairly significant drop-off when our starters are out.  So, if you can get guys in foul trouble, that might change the game.

Norcalnick: Our defense wasn’t great last year, and we really struggled to force turnovers and close out on shooters.  The hope is that the return to man-to-man defense will solve some of those problems but the jury is out.  If UCI can take care of the ball and has a good night shooting they could make things interesting.