Is California Really the Favorite to Win the Pac-12 in Hoops???


California to win the Pac-12 title in basketball? Surely you jest…

But, lately that’s all I’ve been reading on the internet from such basketball luminaries as Doug Gottlieb and Percy Allen. Cal has been in action recently on a tour of Scandanavia. The other day they lost to Norway 69-64. I realize this is one university team playing an entire national team, but Norway? Really? And that was after they barely beat European juggernaut Upsala Basket of Sweden 76-74. (Did you sense the sarcasm?)

But, I digress…The question is, why is Cal getting all this hype?

The Pac-12 has three very good teams who made the NCAA tournament last year who should be good again next season. UCLA returns a monster front line of Reeves Nelson and Josh Smith and then brings in the famous Wear Twins who transferred from North Carolina. Granted, the lost Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA draft and senior PG Jerime Anderson was recently suspended indefinitely for an arrest. So, there are definitely question marks at the guard spot in a conference that tends to be dominated by guards. But still, UCLA has a lot a talent and Ben Howland knows how it, and they will need to be contended with, especially up front.

Then there is Arizona. Yeah, I know, they lost Derrick Williams. But, seriously Arizona is back! Sean Miller rebuilt that program a lot faster than many of us expected. He has top 10 recruiting classes and a lot of talent in Tucson to build with. So what if they lost Momo Jones when they have 5-star recruit Josiah Turner coming in. Add 5-star recruit Nick Johnson to a solid core of Kyle Fogg, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parmon and Jesse Perry and that right there is the Pac-12 favorite my friends.

But, lest not forget our hometown Washington Huskies. Yeah, I realize Dickie V can’t name anyone in Montlake anymore after Isaiah Thomas went to the draft and we do have to replace Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday. But, there is a solid core of players, especially in the form of rising star and possible NBA lottery pick Terrance Ross. The backcourt is experienced and deadly with the return of senior Scott Suggs, sophomore CJ Wilcox, and junior Abdul Gaddy to build around. Add Tony Wroten and a large recruiting class of players who are looking better and better as the summer moves on and the issue isn’t so much IF the Huskies have the talent to compete for another title, but simply if they will have the team chemistry and mesh together well enough to have it together when it counts. One thing most of us are relieved about is that the front line now looks to have the depth and talent to hold its own with Aziz getting better, senior Darnell Gant ready to prove himself, and Martin Bruenig and Shawn Kemp Jr. really putting on some shows in the summer league.

So, with these three teams on the radar, why is it that suddenly everyone is talking about Cal?

First of all, I believe it has a lot to do with the fact that their coach is Mike Montgomery. Let’s face it, the guy is a legend and one of the best college basketball coaches ever. He was able to take Stanford of all schools to 10 straight NCAA tournaments including a Final Four in 1998 and finished there with three straight Pac-10 titles. That is not an easy feat at a university with their academic requirements. After his short stint in the NBA he came back to college and in his 2nd year at Cal won another Pac-10 title.

Although some people do not like his style of play, strategies, or “whining” to the refs, the guy knows basketball and know how to win games with seemingly “lesser” talent.

Secondly, the team does have some solid players on their roster. 6’6″ SG Allen Crabbe was Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last year and is expected to be among the best players in the conference this upcoming season. After averaging 16.4 ppg last year during Pac-10 play, there is definitely an expectation that he could score more than 20 next year.

Oh course, if there is a player on Cal’s roster everyone knows, it is 6’4″ guard Jorge Gutierrez of Mexico. When he was a freshman, all we knew of him was that he was a pesky defender in the same style as Venoy Overton. As a sophomore, he continued to be an amazing stopper, but began to improve his offensive game and ball-handing abilities. Last year, I was really impressed with his ability to handle the ball under pressure, developed a nice mid-range jumper, and really started to become a more complete player. He ended up co-leading the team in scoring at 14.6 ppg last year. This is his senior year and under his leadership, Cal is in good shape.

Then there is 6’8″ F Harper Kamp. This is a kid who has always seemed to have had the potential to really shine, but for a variety of reasons has been held back from his potential. He was Cal’s 2nd leading scorer last year at 14.2 ppg and 2nd in rebounding at 5.2 ppg. He has struggled with injuries during his career, but when he is on the floor, you always need to get a body on him. He is definitely a hard worker with strong leadership skills.

Beyond the big three, Cal has a solid, but not spectacular group of players capable of contributing. Brandon Smith returns as the starter at the point guard position, but folks in Berkeley are really excited about incoming tranfer Justin Cobbs. Many people think he’ll be a major upgrade at that position. Some people are alking about Cobbs as being the Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year. If that is true, then it will take a lot of pressure off Gutierrez with the ball handling and free him up to be more of a slashing and spot up shooting guard.

They are also looking for young players like guards Emerson Murray to help in the backcourt, while Bak Bak and Robert Thurman assist up front. One player we’ll want to keep an eye on is freshman F Christian Behrens of Tahoma HS in Kent. He was a player on the radar of Lorenzo Romar for some time and it’ll be interesting to see if he plays this year or redshirts.

In the end, I think Cal will be a good team, but I still think they will have trouble competing for the Pac-12 championship. I can not see how they will be better than Arizona. I will be doing a full Pac-12 preview as we get closer to the start of the season, and I’ll give you my actual predictions at that time. But, at this stage, I see Cal as a possible NCAA tournament team and probably around 3rd in the conference, fighting with UCLA and maybe Washington for that 3rd spot. They might sneak into 2nd place if UW and UCLA do not play as well as they are capable of. But, it would really require a collapse of all three of those teams for Cal to win the title. They are well coached and have good talent, but on paper, they are maybe the 3rd or 4th best team going into the season.