Allen Crabbe's mask this season may protect more than his nose. The thin piece of plastic could protect his team's chances of competing for the NCAA tournament and the Pac-12 title.
In tryouts for the U.S. Under-19 National Team in June, Crabbe -- a sophomore guard at California -- suffered a broken nose and concussion-like symptoms. For about a month, he couldn't do anything to raise his blood pressure too much or he'd risk a nosebleed.
"I just watched TV; it was really hard," Crabbe says. "I couldn't go out there and play. I just got the mask because I don't want to go through it again."
The mask, Crabbe says, should more evenly distribute the pressure if he is hit in the face again, cutting down the risk of a significant injury.
If Crabbe learned anything last season, it's that he's one of the key components Cal must have at full strength in order to win. Crabbe missed two games and most of a third in February with a concussion. The Golden Bears lost all three: at Washington (109-77), at Washington State (75-71) and at home against USC (78-75).
The four-game losing streak, which started with a 107-105 triple-overtime loss to Arizona with Crabbe in the lineup, could have been the reason Cal didn't make the NCAA tournament field. The Bears finished the season tied with USC at 10-8 in the Pac-10. But with a higher RPI (No. 67 to 76) and a 2-1 edge in the season series with Cal, USC received an NCAA bid. The Trojans lost to VCU in the "First Four" in Dayton, Ohio.
Despite missing the NCAA tournament, Cal was one of the Pac-10's surprise teams. Coach Mike Montgomery cobbled together a group of former role players, freshmen and a player returning from a season-long injury to make the NIT.
The Bears lost their core players from Montgomery's first two seasons -- Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher, Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykins. The 2010-11 Bears had only two players who had started even 10 games in their careers, and no one who had averaged more than 5.5 points per game in a season.
In 2011-12, Montgomery should have a team with a more established identity -- one where Crabbe isn't the hesitant freshman he was early last season. Rather, he'll be the take-charge shooter he was in conference play. He'll also be playing alongside Jorge Gutierrez, who has become a star in his own right after beginning his career as a defensive stopper off the bench.
"They overachieved," Montgomery says. "Once we got into January, we were shorthanded. Guys were going to have to play big minutes, so no one was worried about playing time or their role. We were playing six guys, and those were guys you could trust."
Crabbe arrived on campus as the top recruit in Montgomery's three seasons, a four-star Rivals150 member. But he hardly made a big splash early, averaging 8.5 points in the first 11 games.
By January, attrition had shortened Cal's already-short bench. His high school coach describes Crabbe as low maintenance, but he needed a nudge to become a more consistent threat for Cal to have a chance in the Pac-10.
"Up to that point, he was reticent in shooting the ball," Montgomery says. "Allen does not like to make mistakes. He figured out he was going to have to shoot it and potentially miss it for us to win games."
When Crabbe started taking more shots, he didn't miss all that often. He averaged 16.4 points in conference games, sixth-most in the Pac-10. He shot 37-of-77 percent from 3-point range to lead the Pac-10 at 48.1 percent. No one else with more than 62 3-point attempts in league play shot better than 41 percent.
"I knew he could play," Gutierrez says. "He and everyone else knew he had to play [like he was] a junior -- not even a sophomore, but a junior."
Gutierrez also needed to make a transformation.
When Cal had Randle and Christopher, Gutierrez was Montgomery's go-to defender off the bench.
"There were times his freshman year where we wouldn't playing hard enough, so we'd put him in the game," Montgomery says. "Next thing you know, we were playing harder because he embarrassed [his teammates] because he was playing so hard."
Gutierrez's background may explain his grittiness. When he was 15, he moved with his parents from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Denver. Eventually, his parents returned home, but Gutierrez remained to play at Denver's Lincoln High, living in a one-bedroom apartment with three teammates.
Gutierrez played about 20 minutes per game in his first two seasons. As a junior, he became the team's leading scorer at 14.5 points per game and acknowledges playing at his normal level of intensity for more than 30 minutes per game was a challenge, especially into January and February.
Another change was that Gutierrez had to take a more visible leadership role. By nature, he's a quiet and reserved person. The challenge this season is to become more vocal.
"It's fun watching him play," Crabbe says. "Jorge always made the hustle plays. Now he had to help us score. He's a great player. It shows where hard work can get you."
The return of Crabbe, Gutierrez and forward Harper Kamp gives Cal the top three returning scorers in Pac-12 play. Suddenly, one of the most inexperienced rosters in the league is one of the most seasoned.
That's not to say Cal is without its flaws. Montgomery says for Cal to succeed, the Bears need Kamp to build on last season, when he averaged 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds. One of Cal's few personnel losses is Markhuri Sanders-Frison, who led the Bears in rebounding at 7.4 per game.
Crabbe still is making his way back from the injury that sidelined him for a month. He's still working to get his legs back under him after weeks of inactivity.
"Last year was an unknown. We were picked seventh or eighth in the league," Montgomery says. "They should be more confident, but the expectations will be higher."