Two pertinent questions face the Golden Bears as they prepare for the start of the Pac-10 schedule:
1. Can they beat a truly elite team?The Bears' 84-69 loss at No. 1 Kansas on Dec. 22 was their fourth defeat of the season, all coming at the hands of excellent opposition. Through Christmas, in fact, Syracuse, Ohio State, New Mexico and Kansas had a combined record of 45-3. Two of them -- Syracuse and Kansas -- were among an ever-shrinking list of unbeaten teams.
2. Will they face one in the Pac-10?
The Bears weren't competitive against Syracuse or Ohio State at Madison Square Garden in late November, but they were playing without senior forward Theo Robertson, sidelined by a foot injury on the eve of the game against the Orange.
Robertson still was on the shelf and a handful of his teammates were battling the flu when Cal ran out of steam late in a road loss to New Mexico.
The Bears actually played quite well at Kansas, down just one point at halftime, and trailing 68-63 with under eight minutes left. Ultimately, the Jayhawks were too big, too deep and too composed, and won their 49th straight game at Allen Fieldhouse. No shame there for the Bears.
But if they haven't been good enough to beat the very best, what should we expect of them in the Pac-10, where there is no opponent that resembles Syracuse or Kansas?
Washington looms as their biggest rival for Pac-10 supremacy, although USC is coming on fast and Arizona State is playing the type of defense no one wants to see. Washington State appears better than expected, and Arizona recently beat North Carolina State.
Cal has taken care of business against everyone one step down on the talent ladder, and its core of four senior starters provides the Bears with the Pac-10's most experienced roster.
Still, it will be curious to see just when the Bears will finally beat someone that might get the attention of the NCAA seeding committee.
JANUARY AT A GLANCE: The Bears should -- and must -- get off to a quick start in the Pac-10. They play their first three games of the conference schedule at home, against teams experiencing growing pains. If Cal has serious designs on competing for its first conference title in 50 years, it needs to start 4-0 before facing co-favorite Washington in Seattle on Jan. 16.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's a reason Kansas is the No. 1 team in the country. They execute very well offensively and defensively. That's what you expect from the No. 1 team." -- Cal senior Jamal Boykin.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: The Bears were 6-4 headed into their Dec. 28-29 Golden Bear Classic, and all four losses were away from home and all of them to excellent teams. Injuries and illness prevented Cal from finding a rhythm early, but the club may have developed better depth as a result. If the non-conference hard knocks toughened up the Bears, they'll be happy with the results.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Jamal Boykin, C Max Zhang, F Theo Robertson, G Patrick Christopher, G Jerome Randle. Key Subs -- G Jorge Gutierrez, F Omondi Amoke, C Markhuri Sanders-Frison, G Brandon Smith.
Cal 82, Iowa State 63GAME PREVIEW:
Cal 79, Pacific 54
Kansas 84, Cal 69
vs. Utah Valley, Monday, Dec. 28
vs. Furman or UC Santa Barbara, Tuesday, Dec. 29
vs. Stanford, Saturday, Jan. 2
vs. UCLA, Wednesday, Jan. 6
vs. USC, Saturday, Jan. 9
IN FOCUS: The Bears don't figure to have much difficulty in their Golden Bear Classic, where visitors Utah Valley, Furman and UC Santa Barbara arrived without a victory against a Division I opponent since Dec. 3. Stanford looms in the Pac-10 opener, and the Cardinal has been good enough to play close -- then lose -- in a series of high-profile matchups. Cal must win this first meeting of the season involving coach Mike Montgomery's old school.