BERKELEY -- Don't let Mike Montgomery fool you. He is just as geeked up about the NCAA tournament this week as he was in 1989 when he coached his first NCAA tournament game.

How do we know? Because the Cal coach is locked squarely into his usual faux cranky-pants mode as the opening tip approaches.

Tuesday at his usual weekly press session, Montgomery was in typical form. Someone wondered how much of an advantage it is for Cal to play its first NCAA game a short drive away in San Jose, while opponent UNLV must fly in from Las Vegas.

Montgomery scoffed at any such advantage.

"If we run into traffic on I-880," he noted, "Las Vegas might take less time than us getting there."

Minutes later, Montgomery said it always "slays" him how his team can battle through a long regular season, practicing six days a week with 30-plus games -- but receives little attention until the NCAA bracket is announced.

"Then all of the columnists show up," Montgomery noted with mock outrage, "and it's like, 'So now it's suddenly important?"

Hey, guilty as charged. That's just how the Bay Area works. With so many pro franchises in various sports, college basketball is somewhere between a pleasant diversion and a mildly interesting afterthought until the month of March.

So here we are. Again. And so is Montgomery. Of course. Thursday, he will coach his 33rd NCAA tournament game -- and his fifth at Cal following 28 of them at Stanford. He has won 17 of those previous 32 games -- an above-.500 record in an annual event where only one team finishes with a victory.

But, frankly, there were moments this season when you wondered if his Golden Bears would get there at all -- and even more frankly, some moments when you wondered if Montgomery had reached the end of his wits rope and might be ready to take a cushy consulting job.

He is 66 years old, after all. He survived a cancer scare a couple of years ago. And last month, that was genuine frustration you saw on his face, not acting, when his awkward push-shove of star player Allen Crabbe during a timeout resulted in a Pac-12 reprimand and a Montgomery apology.

However, retirement has never entered his mind, Montgomery said Tuesday. He won't even be the oldest coach at HP Pavilion this weekend. That honor goes to Jim Boeheim of Syracuse. He is 68.

"But Jim married kind of a much younger woman," joked Montgomery, a Boeheim pal. "And he's got a younger family at home. So I think that keeps him going."

OK, but what is Montgomery's excuse? Maybe it's that, while he won't ever show it, he loves his job immensely. This winter when he was able to reboot the Bears after a ragged stretch of six losses in nine games -- and roll off seven straight conference victories -- you could sense Montgomery's satisfaction that his players had bought into his defense-first message.

The Bears, of course, then slipped and lost their season closer to Stanford and their Pac-12 tourney opener to Utah. So who knows what we'll see Thursday.

Montgomery will have a plan, though. He has coached NCAA games in 18 cities, in four time zones. He has learned some things. And for all his fake annoyance about the hyper-attention garnered by NCAA games, he totally gets the concept. He outlined it all to his team before that bus ride to the South Bay.

"What I told them," Montgomery said, "is that you always have a little bit of a hangover when you lose a game in the conference tournament the way we did. But I wanted to point out that only 20 percent of the teams in the country make it to the NCAA tournament, and we're one of them. So we need to take advantage of that opportunity. I also told them there are no do-overs. It's not like in the season when you've got another game on Saturday. There's no next game if we don't earn it."

This hardly sounds like a man ready to retire. But just for the record and to be perfectly clear: Montgomery plans to coach until he is ... what, 90 years old?

"Ninety-one," he said.

All right, then. Ninety-one. If so, Montgomery's swan song will occur at the 2038 NCAA tournament. By then, the I-880 traffic will be a snap because we'll all have flying cars. Even the columnists. Although we still won't show up until March.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.

Online Extras
Jeff Faraudo: Five players to watch Thursday at HP Pavilion
Jon Wilner: Four best-bet games for Thursday's NCAA lineup
PACIFIC: Coach Bob Thomason on his retirement tour's next stop: the NCAA tournament
PRACTICE TIME: Schedule of Wednesday's practice times for the eight NCAA teams at HP Pavilion, which is open to the public

San jose regional
Thursday at HP Pavilion:
  • No. 13 New Mexico State (24-10) vs. No. 4 Saint Louis (27-6), 11:10 a.m. TNT
  • No. 12 Oregon (26-8) vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State (24-8), 1:40 p.m. TNT
  • No. 12 Cal (20-11) vs. No. 5 UNLV (25-9), 4:27 p.m. truTV
  • No. 13 Montana (25-6) vs. No. 4 Syracuse (26-9), 6:57 p.m. truTV
    Winners play in third-round games Saturday at HP Pavilion, times to be announced.

    inside
    Cal's Justin Cobbs has a better understanding of his role. Page 4