Photo by Cal Sports Media via AP Images
Ask just about anyone who was a part of the first team at Findlay Prep back in 2007-08 for their best story about Jorge Gutierrez's toughness, and you'll get a different answer from almost everyone.
For UNLV senior center Brice Massamba, it was the time that Gutierrez suffered a concussion in the second half of a game in which Findlay led by more than 30 points while diving for a loose ball. A woozy Gutierrez couldn't even stand up on the bench while getting looked at, but was still begging to be put back on the floor.
For UNLV sophomore forward Carlos Lopez, it was those days spent out on the football field behind the Henderson International School running 150-yard sprints, with Gutierrez always finishing first and shooting hardened stares at teammates who couldn't keep up, trying to push them.
For Findlay coach Mike Peck, it was the time he took Gutierrez to the emergency room after the senior guard broke his nose during a scrimmage in practice. Peck said that after refusing medicine for the pain before doctors set the nose in place, Gutierrez simply lied on his back, gripped the sides of the table and let them do their job. He never jerked or flinched from the pain, and all Peck saw was a single tear roll down from Gutierrez's right eye.
So, yeah, a road game back in Las Vegas against No. 21 UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. likely scares the now-senior Cal guard about as much as a cloudy day.
For the Rebels (12-2), it's their marquee home game in a non-conference schedule that has been filled with brutal road spots. On the other side, the Bears (10-2), arguably the best team the Pac-12 has to offer this season, come in with Gutierrez as their unquestioned leader. He went from an undersized, under-recruited, raw fifth-year senior at Findlay Prep to a guy living up to the hype as this year's preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year.
"That's hard work," Lopez said. "That's what happens when you really want to get somewhere with basketball. He's the perfect example. Nobody was recruiting him, and (Cal coach Mike Montgomery) took him under his arm and now he's one of the best players in their conference.
"I saw it from the first time we played that he was going to go somewhere and be really good."
Added Massamba: "I'm not surprised at all after seeing him and playing with him. With his work ethic, I knew he'd become something big."
Gutierrez was one of the first players that Montgomery signed after being hired late in the spring recruiting period.
At 6-foot-3, Gutierrez wasn't particularly big, and his shot needed a decent amount of work. In fact, he had a better offensive game in the post playing as an undersized power forward than he did as a guard.
Gutierrez had a strong senior season after two years of high school ball in Colorado, averaging 13.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 2.6 assists per game. He even took home MVP honors from the prestigious National Prep Invitational in Rhode Island. But, for various reasons, the Chihuahua, Mexico, native was passed over by coaches who came to the desert to find players.
But Montgomery saw some of the same things that Peck did.
"I was surprised (he was under-recruited), because in coaching, the more time you spend with a kid in terms of your practices and just your season, you get to know what a kid's all about," Peck said. "I just knew with Jorge that if I was a coach in college at any level, he would be a no-brainer."
Peck said that some of it was that he didn't necessarily pass the 'look test,' and some coaches were wary of whether he'd ever be able to develop into a skilled guard.
But he's flown by those minimal expectations in a big way, and this season is averaging 13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game while also being one of the nation's premier perimeter defenders.
For his Cal career, Gutierrez is a 36.6 percent 3-point shooter, and this season, with more seasoned guards around him, he's become a more selective shooter. As a result, he's shooting a career-best 51.4 percent from the floor and 52.9 percent from long range.
That's where this match-up gets intriguing, as Cal's strength is its guard play. 6-foot-6 sophomore Allen Crabbe is averaging 16.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game, while Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs is averaging 12.0 points and 4.4 assists. Collectively, they've done a decent job of protecting the ball, too, and will now try to do so against UNLV's pressure defense on the perimeter.
Where UNLV might be able to do some work is on the interior, by both feeding the posts and penetrating with their guards. 6-foot-8 senior Harper Kamp played 33 minutes the other night against UC Santa Barbara despite battling an illness, while sophomore big man Richard Solomon will sit for the Bears with a foot injury. Behind them, freshman reserve David Kravish (5.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) has been decent in his 22 minutes per game, and Cal will need more from raw 6-foot-9 junior Bak Bak, who is likely to get some extended playing time on Friday.
Following the Cal game, the UNLV players will be given Saturday and Sunday off, and won't play again until Wednesday night at home against Central Arkansas. It is the team's first stretch with four full days between games this season.