2008-2009 Record: 22-11, 11-7 Pac-10 (3rd)
Key Losses: Jordan Wilkes (4.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
Key Returners: Jerome Randle (18.3 ppg, 5.0 apg), Patrick Christopher (14.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg), Theo Robertson (13.1 ppg, 48.7% 3's)
Newcomers: Bak Bak, Brandon Smith, Markhuri Sanders-Frison
(photo credit: The Play in California)
Mike Montgomery, who spent 18 seasons as the head coach of Stanford, joined the Cardinal's biggest rival last season and had an excellent year, winning 22 games and earning a bid to the NCAA tournament. The improvement was all the more surprising given that Cal, who went 17-16 in 2008, lost two big men to the NBA - Ryan Anderson and DeVon Hardin.
With a hole in the middle, Montgomery brought a new style to the Bears, opting to run a fast-paced offense that relied on the open floor abilities of Jerome Randle. Randle might have been the most improved player in the country last season. As a sophomore, Randle averaged just over 11 ppg, deferring to guys like Hardin and Anderson. But as a junior, the diminutive Randle proved to be arguably the best point guard in a league with a lot of good point guards (Isaiah Thomas, Darren Collison, Nic Wise, Taylor Rochestie). Part of what made Randle so effective was that the open floor style allowed him to take advantage of his quickness. There may not be a player in the country that can go from 0-60 as quickly as Randle. This stop-and-go ability, combined with his small stature (listed at 5'10", looks closer to 5'8"), make Randle nearly impossible to stay in front off the bounce. But you can't slack off of him because he is nearly automatic from deep - he hit 46.3% from three last season. With the other shooters that the Bears have on their roster, Randle's ability to penetrate is going to be key - if there is help side defense, he can kick it out; if there isn't, he can finish in the paint.
But Randle is far from the only perimeter threat that the Bears have. Senior Patrick Christopher is a proven scorer. While he has never had to be a star for the Bears, he is a great complimentary scorer. Christopher's scoring ability is centered around his jump shot, which is fairly consistent in catch-and-shoot situations. But Christopher has a tendency to take some tough shots, and while he does make quite a few of them, it makes him a little less efficient than would be ideal. Theo Robertson might be the best three point shooter in the country. While he is just a moderate athlete, Robertson is capable of scoring inside the arc. While he shots 48.7% from deep, he only took 3.5 per game while laying 33.5 minutes.
Those three guys each played over 33 minutes per game last season, and should be expected to play a lot of minutes again. But when they do need to come out, Cal has a couple reserves that should be expected to contribute. Sophomores Omondi Amoke and Jorge Gutierrez are probably the best of the bunch. Gutierrez is an athlete, and is probably the best perimeter defender on Cal's roster. Amoke is a little bit bigger (6'7") and a more of a slasher, but he will get minutes in the paint. He gives Montgomery energy, hustle, and offensive rebounding off the bench. DJ Seeley, who you may remember from this game, should also see some time.
The biggest question mark for the Bears is going to be in their front court. Jamal Boykin is a good player. At 6'8", 240 lb, he provides muscle on the block, rebounding, and a decent scoring threat. The fact that Boykin is able to knock down jumpers from the perimeter means that the Bears can go five-out of the offensive end.
But after Boykin, there really is not all that much depth up front. Harper Kamp has some size (6'9"), but he doesn't provide much more than defense and rebounding. Bak Bak is an athletic 6'9", but he is still quite raw. Perhaps the biggest question mark, both literally and figuratively, will be 7'3" Max Zhang. Zhang played just 67 minutes as a freshman, but he was dominant in the World Univerity games over the summer, averaging 18.0 ppg, 17.3 rpg, and 5.6 bpg. He may be the only guy capable of providing Cal with a defender around the rim. Also expect JuCo transfer Markhuri Sanders-Frison to see some time if he can get into shape (at 6'7", he is currently pushing 300 lb).
Outlook: We could argue all day about who is the favorite in the Pac-10 - Washington or Cal. While Washington will be adding talented freshman Abdul Gaddy, Cal is loaded with experienced, and talented, players who have now had a season to learn the system they are playing in. With guys like Randle, Christopher, and Robertson, Cal is going to be able to put up points with anyone in the country. If they can rebound the ball and defend, Cal could win the Pac-10 and be the best team on the West Coast. If they can't, they may not be a top 25 team by year's end.