A Golden opportunity

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. | California’s Jordan Wilkes thought of moving on, worn down with the college basketball grind when the Golden Bears opted for a coaching change.

Out went Ben Braun. In came Mike Montgomery, a man accustomed to thriving at a big-time Bay Area school.

And with just a brief exchange, Wilkes decided to stick around for another year.

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“I remember leaving the meeting and thinking, ‘Yeah, this guy’s the right one,’ ” the senior center said Wednesday as the seventh-seeded Golden Bears (22-10) prepared for a first-round NCAA tournament meeting with 10th-seeded Maryland (20-13) at Sprint Center.

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So too it was the right place for Montgomery, the former Stanford coach whose brief NBA fling with the Golden State Warriors boomeranged him back to the college game and a second chance in the Pac-10.

Not that his first run didn’t go well. Montgomery took Stanford to a dozen NCAA tournaments, reaching the Final Four in 1998 and losing a regional final to Maryland in 2001.

“I was ready to move to something else,” Montgomery said. “Had I been able [to stay longer], I thought that probably would have been enough. It got cut a little short.”

After two seasons with the Warriors, Montgomery was dismissed less than two months before camp started in 2006. And while he admitted it took a while to get over it, it was only a matter of time before another opportunity popped up.

It happened just down the road from his NBA stop - and a little farther away from his previous college stop. And while Montgomery probably enjoyed the luxury of twice changing jobs without hiring a real estate agent, this season has reinvigorated both him and the Golden Bears.

“I think with his time with the Warriors, he realized, ‘I’m better suited for the college game,’ ” Cal assistant Jay John said. “It is a profession at that level, and for 100 games a year, not all those guys are coming to play every night. In college, when it’s just 30 games, you can get them to come play a little more, and some of those things frustrated him a little bit.”

The bunch Montgomery inherited was also frustrated, both with an increasingly common spot near the bottom of the Pac-10 and the relative mediocrity that had seeped into the program. The Golden Bears had just one NCAA appearance in the previous five years - fewer than everyone in the league except Arizona State and Oregon State.

Montgomery’s Stanford teams were known for their sound fundamental play, and he soon infused that trait into the Golden Bears. But he also propped up a group used to struggling, including point guard Jerome Randle (team-high 18.4 points).

“When he came in, I think my confidence was a little bit under the ground,” Randle said. “I just felt like he just gave me a bundle of confidence, and I just really respect him for that. He knows exactly what he’s talking about out on the floor. He’s putting the ball in my hands and basically just telling me to play basketball. He’s not putting a leash on me. I don’t have to look over if I make a mistake.”

Those are less common than in the past, and California has followed a season arc similar to Maryland’s. Expected to finish in the bottom half of a power conference with an undersized roster, the Golden Bears have exploited their potent perimeter play to secure an NCAA berth the program probably savors more than any appearance in the past.

“We have gotten the most out of these guys,” John said. “We definitely have deficiencies, but we’ve been able to minimize our deficiencies and maximize strengths enough that we’re here.”

Central to it all was Montgomery, who pieced together his 11th straight 20-win season as a college coach - and has a chance to collect his 11th consecutive victory in a first-round game Thursday.

It’s an effective return to school - and one Montgomery is comfortable with after his NBA sojourn.

“You’re dealing with kids and daily moods,” Montgomery said. “Kids have class and issues and things they have to do. By and large, it’s been good. They’ve been responsive and done what we think it takes.”

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