There have been times this season when Mike Montgomery surely wanted to pull off one of his fists and throw it at something, if not someone.

That much was to be expected insofar as the Cal coach had a roster -- inexperienced and ever-changing -- that can exasperate veteran basketball teachers accustomed to success.

But the Golden Bears have overcome their youth with such savvy and pluck that the coach can't help but like what he has. Under the circumstances, he has achieved more than most would have imagined.

That was evident Saturday, as Cal ended its regular season by blasting Stanford back to the other side of the Bay with a 74-55 victory before 9,752 at Haas Pavilion.

The Golden Bears raced to leads of 19-4, 27-10 and 33-15 en route to a victory that avenged a loss to the Cardinal in the season opener two months ago. They did it by playing hard and smart and fast and, above all, as a unit.

It was a 40-minute illustration of Montgomery's strengths as a coach and why he was hired three years ago. He has taken this team of low expectations, coaxed it along despite numerous barriers and nurtured it to the brink of NCAA tournament consideration.

Two wins in the Pac-10 tournament this week would give the Golden Bears (17-13, 10-8 Pac-10) reason for anxiety when Selection Sunday arrives a week from now.

"I think winning 10 games is fabulous," Montgomery said. "We expected to have four players we don't have. I don't know if we would have ever played this lineup with the guys we thought we would have had. And that might be a good thing, since this group has such good chemistry."

Coming off a season in which the Golden Bears rode four seniors to 24 wins and into the NCAAs, in which they knocked off Louisville before losing to eventual national champion Duke, this Cal team was built to struggle mightily while testing the patience of a coach.

That's because along with the youth and the antacids that come with it, there was a decided lack of height and a notable paucity of depth. Max Zhang, the 7-foot-3 center who contributed last season, returned to China in November. Forward Omondi Amoke was dismissed from the program last spring, and guard D.J. Seeley transferred.

So the Bears opened the season with a lineup featuring three guards, two of them freshmen, Allen Crabbe and Gary Franklin, with a scoring mentality. Franklin lasted 13 games before deciding to pack up and leave Berkeley.

Crabbe, by contrast, stayed around and developed right along with the team. Indeed, the 6-6 wing is the favorite to be named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.

Which is to say the Golden Bears wouldn't be anywhere near any tournament without him as part of their six- and occasionally seven-man rotation.

But the same can be said of the team leaders, senior forward Markhuri Sanders-Frison, junior forward Harper Kamp and junior guard Jorge Gutierrez. They moved seamlessly into the roles vacated by departed seniors Jerome Randle, Jamal Boykin, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson.

"That's one of the key roles that I play," Sanders-Frison said of setting an example for the youngsters. "We need it and we need them. Coach can get on them pretty bad, and when they get out of the huddle I just reassure them that they are doing great.

"And they have a bright future."

They do if they play as they did Saturday. Crabbe had a game-high 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting. Freshman forward Richard Solomon played 17 minutes, throwing down three dunks and providing a defensive presence inside.

Sophomore point guard Brandon Smith, who replaced Franklin in the lineup, didn't play especially well but remains the personification of the team. He's physically limited but mentally tough.

He's entrusted with an offense that requires motion, lots of cutting and curling. And he runs it well enough; Cal moves the ball as well as anyone in the conference and certainly did so against Stanford.

"We have been through a lot," Kamp said. "I credit my teammates and the coaches for staying focused and just trying to do as well as we can, especially with the adversity we have been playing through."

But everything about this team comes back to Montgomery, who may be having his best year since arriving in the Bay Area to coach Stanford a quarter-century ago. He has had much more experienced teams at both schools, with vastly more talent and size.

Yet this is a team the coach has to like, a team Old Blues have to love. These Bears are a long shot for the NCAAs, but four months ago they were a no-shot.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.