A year ago, after losing four senior starters from the school’s first Pac-10 championship team in a half-century, the Golden Bears were expected to finish near the bottom of the conference. They wound up tied for fourth, and with four starters back this time, no one is counting them out again. “One would assume, if we improve a little bit, we should be able to make a little stronger push,” coach Mike Montgomery says.
The Bears have tough-minded seniors in Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp and a budding star in sophomore Allen Crabbe. How far they climb the Pac-12 ladder will depend on their ability to match up in the frontcourt and develop better depth than a year ago.
But the backcourt is excellent, no team in the league has more experience, and Montgomery provides an edge on the bench in almost every game. Don’t be surprised when the Golden Bears return to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons.
Key Golden Bears Stat: 82.9
The Golden Bears return 82.9 percent of their scoring from 2010-11 conference play. No team in the Pac-12 can match that number.
Kamp may not be quite 6'8" like he’s listed, but he’s smart, tough and efficient. He played all 55 minutes and scored 33 points in a triple-overtime loss to Arizona. “We ran him into the ground last year,” says Montgomery, noting that Kamp needed much of the spring to heal up. “We expect him to still have a leadership role and be a very effective player in our league.”
The Bears need a leap forward from sophomore forward Richard Solomon, who is quick and athletic but must develop a back-to-the-basket game. “Richard has got to be better,” says Montgomery. “He’s young, and he will be better.”
Junior Bak Bak has made slow progress, but he will be the first post player off the bench. He must become a player the Bears can depend on. Freshmen David Kravish and Christian Behrens will get the opportunity to show what they can do from the start. Junior walk-on Robert Thurman is the Bears’ only true center.
The Bears feature two all-conference caliber players at the wings in Gutierrez and Crabbe. Gutierrez has evolved from purely a defensive pest to an all-around talent. He plays with a fast motor, loves to disrupt the opponent’s flow and has steadily improved his offense to the point where he scored 34 points in a win over UCLA last season. “Jorge gets about all the mileage out of himself that he can,” Montgomery says. “He does so many things to help you win.”
While Gutierrez perhaps has been underrated, Crabbe earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors last season after averaging 16.4 points in conference play, including 30 in a win over Washington State. He owns a great perimeter stroke and showed signs of being more effective off the dribble.
Brandon Smith took over the point after freshman Gary Franklin Jr., transferred one game into the Pac-10 schedule. Smith solidified the club, allowing everyone to settle into roles that made the offense more efficient. “Brandon really saved our bacon,” Montgomery says.
Sophomore Justin Cobbs, a transfer from Minnesota, can play either guard spot. Sophomore Emerson Murray hopes to be quicker after offseason surgery to have a plate removed from his foot. Alex Rossi, regarded as an excellent 3-point shooter, returns after sitting out last season with groin and hernia ailments.
The Bears got the chance to test-drive their new model during an August tour of Northern Europe, which afforded them 10 extra days of practice and five exhibition games. Montgomery wanted to see how the team would function without 6'7" widebody Markhuri Sanders-Frison, the club’s only departed senior. He wanted a look at Solomon’s progress, and he got his first glimpse of what he can expect from his two freshman forwards, Kravish and Behrens.
Montgomery acknowledges that there are variables that could impact how the season unfolds. “Depth was an issue for us last year,” he says. “We need Rossi to be able to play. We need Emerson to come back strong. Harper has to be 100 percent. Right now, we don’t know those things.”
Even assuming good health, Cal won’t overpower most Pac-12 foes. But there is a mix of grit, smarts, experience and skill that should keep the Bears near the top of the conference and punch their ticket for the NCAA Tournament.
Pac-12 Prediction: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out