The California Golden Bears have the most experienced roster in the Pac-12, and they have more depth and versatility than they had a year ago.
They hope that adds up to a run to their second conference title in three years following a 50-year drought.
"One would assume, if we improve a little bit, we should be able to make a stronger push," said Mike Montgomery, in his fourth season as Bears coach.
Senior guard Jorge Gutierrez, who was Montgomery's first recruit, is the heart and soul of the team. He has developed from his freshman season as a defensive pest into a ferocious all-around player who should contend for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors.
"He's just a winner," Montgomery said. "Jorge gets about all the mileage out of himself that he can. He does so many things to help you win."
The Bears also feature 6-foot-6 wing Allen Crabbe, a silky-smooth shooter who earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors last season. Crabbe averaged 16.4 points in conference play and scored 30 in a win over Washington State.
Then there's 6-8, 245-pound senior forward Harper Kamp, the most understated of the three, and possibly the most irreplaceable.
"The key thing is Harper has got to stay healthy," said Montgomery, underscoring the reality that Cal has little experienced depth behind him.
Kamp has undergone two knee surgeries over the past three seasons and is accustomed to playing with a certain level of discomfort.
"I'm trying to get it to the point where I can play every day and not worry about the pain," he said.
LAST YEAR: 18-15 overall, 10-8 in the Pac-10
Coach Mike Montgomery underwent a surgical procedure Oct. 19 and was expected to be sidelined for a short recovery period. The athletic department did not immediately provide details, but it said assistants Jay John and Travis DeCuire would lead the team until Montgomery's return. One of the biggest revelations of Cal's late-summer tour of northern Europe was the play of 6-foot-10, 260-pound walk-on center Robert Thurman. With Harper Kamp playing sparingly due to an ailing knee, Thurman started several games and played well.
"Robert's improved," Montgomery said. "He's a big, strong kid. He's gotten a lot better at simplifying the game. If he gets (the ball) and turns to the basket, he's pretty effective.
"I wouldn't say we're out of the woods on that. If we can get him to play hard and be smart with how he plays -- he's got to be physical, but smart-physical -- he's got the ability to score the ball inside a little bit and rebound the ball. He can help us."
Montgomery isn't worried about his team's scoring, suggesting that will take care of itself. But there are other areas he said need improvement.
"We'd like to play man defense, and I'm concerned we're not progressing as much as I'd like," he said. "So we're going to try to get that to where it's something we can do effectively. I don't think we board like we should. We need to get more people going more aggressively to the offensive glass and making sure they get their block-offs."
HEAD COACH: Mike Montgomery, 30th year as head coach (64-37 in three years at Cal; 611-281 career)
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have a lot of talent, and we've got a lot of guys back. At this point, it's just a matter of how hard we're willing to work to get to the next level, which is being at the top of the league." -- Senior forward Harper Kamp.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP: PG Brandon Smith, SG Jorge Gutierrez, SF Allen Crabbe, PF Harper Kamp, PF Richard Solomon.
LINEUP BREAKDOWN: The Bears will have more depth and better flexibility than a year ago, when their bench often was non-productive. The arrival of sophomore guard Justin Cobbs, a transfer from Minnesota, will be big lift. Cobbs can play either guard spot and is more physical and offensively aggressive than starting PG Brandon Smith. The biggest personnel issue may be who will back up Allen Crabbe at small forward. The Bears hoped it would be redshirt freshman wing Alex Rossi, but the hernia and groin injuries that wiped out his rookie season have not cleared up. Rossi is considered an excellent spot-up shooter, but the Bears would like to see it in person. Walk-on wing Jeff Powers, who had a couple of nice games last season, could be the short-term answer.
Junior F Bak Bak is behind schedule after spending more than a month in Kenya, trying to get his passport renewed. The Bears hope sophomore G Emerson Murray is ready to contribute after offseason surgery to remove metal plates that were implanted in his foot after injury in high school.
SCOUTING THE NEWCOMERS: The Bears welcome two freshman forwards, both of whom could see playing time. David Kravish, a 6-foot-9 product over the Kansas City, Mo., area, is smart and skilled but weighs just 210 pounds and needs more strength. But both he and 6-8 Christian Behrens had their moments on the Bears' European exhibition tour.
"David is a very smart player," coach Mike Montgomery said of Kravish. "You look at the tape and you say, 'Gosh, he's always in the right spot. He always goes to where he's supposed to.' But he's 210 (pounds), so he'll get bounced out of some of the areas he's gotten to. Strength will be a factor for him."
On Behrens, Montgomery said, "He's got the knack -- we found out in Europe. He has a knack of being around the ball," Montgomery said of Behrens. "The last two games we played over there against the Danish national team, we don't win without David and Christian."
Sophomore G Justin Cobbs likely will have a bigger immediate impact after sitting out last season as a transfer from Minnesota. "Justin is strong. He can defend, he can score," Montgomery said. "His big thing is he kind of loses focus every now and again over what he's trying to do. But when he's going, doing the things he's capable of, he's real good."
Sophomore Allen Crabbe, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in 2011, broke his nose during early summer training camp for the USA under-19 team and returned home before roster selections were made. He missed a chunk of the summer after surgery on the nose but was able to play when the Bears visited northern Europe in September. Crabbe figures to be the Bears' leading scorer this season after averaging 13.4 points per game last season. Sophomore F Richard Solomon, who joined Crabbe at the USA tryout camp, has added some weight and strength and the beginnings of a back-to-the-basket game after working with Markhuri Sanders-Frison, the Bears' recently graduated starting center. "He's getting better at it," coach Mike Montgomery said. "He seemingly understands the value of it. Again, when the game starts, how will that translate?" Junior F Bak Bak may not have quite the impact the Bears had hoped for, at least not at the season's outset. He did not travel with the team to Europe after spending weeks in Kenya sorting out a passport issue. "It slowed him down. He should have been lifting all summer -- that was important -- and he was gone. So he came back, he'd lost weight, lost strength," Montgomery said.