This is Golden Bear Lair’s Cal Men’s Basketball 2011-2012 Preview. This is Part I of III. Here is the outline of the preview: Part I includes the intro and two points (Intro: Why the Hype?, 1. Cal Returns Pac-12’s Strongest Core, 2. Cal Has Conference’s Best Coach). Part II includes one huge point (3. Cal’s Team Will Be Deeper, a look at the team position by position). Finally, Part III includes the last two points and the conclusion (4. Cal Will Be Better Defensively 5. Cal’s Team Is More Defined, More Experienced 6. Cal Will Benefit from August Trip to Scandinavia, Conclusion: Cal’s Best Season Since 1960?). What does that all add up to? The most in-depth and thorough preview of Cal Men’s Basketball that you will find.
Cal Men’s Basketball Preview: The First Year of the Pac-12
Last year, in Mike Montgomery’s 3rd season at Cal, the Bears finished in a tie for 4th in the conference. This was an impressive feat, considering that they lost 8 players from the previous year’s Pac-10 championship team (Randle, Christopher, Robertson, Boykin, Amoke, Zhang, Knezovic, and Seeley), all of whom played substantial minutes. The team turned out to be much better than predicted. Cal’s level of offensive efficiency by season’s end and its general cohesion were pleasures to behold.
However, Cal’s core members (Crabbe, Gutierrez, Smith, Kamp, and Sanders-Frison) regularly had to play high, grueling numbers of minutes, because there was little quality depth. By season’s end the toll from this was apparent. With little left in the tank, Cal’s post-season ended with a whimper, as the Bears lost 2 of their last 3. USC trounced the Bears in the Pac-10 tournament; in the NIT, after eking out a home win against Mississippi, the Bears were soundly whipped by Colorado. A worn down Cal team (Sanders-Frison was unable to play, Kamp was playing on sore knees and a bad back, and Gutierrez took a hard blow to the head and missed most of the second half) had no answers in Colorado against a talented, energized opponent that had all season been dominant on its home court.
Cal ended with a final RPI rating of 75th nationally, trailing six of its 11 conference opponents in the newly formed Pac-12: Arizona (13), Washington (30), UCLA (38), Colorado (64), Washington State (70), USC (73).
Why, then, is the outlook better this year? Why do most predictors, not just Cal fans, expect much more from this year’s squad? Why have preseason basketball magazines, writers, and polls variously projected the Bears so high? Lindy’s Sports Magazine has them 11th nationally; ESPN.com’s writer has picked the Bears to win the Pac-12; Cal is 24th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll (behind AZ and UCLA, it should be noted). Gutierrez and Crabbe have been put on the 50 player watch list for the John Wooden Award, given annually to the most outstanding college basketball player; both have also been preseason picks for first team all Pac-12. Gutierrez has been frequently mentioned as a favorite for Pac-12 POY.
First, the most obvious answer is that Cal returns a strong core—Gutierrez, Crabbe, Kamp, and Smith—that should prove even better this year. Gutierrez returns from his first year as a starter, where he was placed on the all Pac-10 first team, both overall and defensively. As Monty has said, “Jorge is just a winner,” and you cannot get higher praise than that. Crabbe was easily voted Pac-10 freshman of the year. Kamp placed on the second team, all Pac-10. Smith had the best assists to turnover ratio in the conference and by the end of the year was hitting crucial shots in crunch time. (Despite a shaky start to his Cal career, in his judicious selection of attempts, Brandon did lead the team in 3-point field goal percentage last year.)
In contrast, each of the six Pac-12 teams with season-ending RPI’s higher than Cal’s lost players to the NBA draft and other key players to graduation. Cal lost only one player, Sanders-Frison, and while important, he was not of NBA caliber and he played fewer minutes than any member of Cal’s returning core (largely due his season-long battle with plantar fasciitis).
As Jon Wilner wrote in the Sporting News, “Only three of the league’s top 10 scorers from 2010-11 are back this season, and two of them play for Cal [Gutierrez, Crabbe]. Guards Allen Crabbe and Jorge Gutierrez and forward Harper Kamp, who combined for 42.2 points per game last year, are the most productive group of returnees on any team.”
While there are no guarantees, we can assume that this core will grow stonger. These are young men that with favorable health should be improving each year. As good as they were collectively and individually, all should grow, both from the experiences of last season as well as from their physical maturation from one year to the next. Jorge clearly learned a great deal about his offensive game from the responsibilities put on him last year, when he became the team’s leading scorer and assist man. He made a huge jump in his free throw accuracy, from 60% to 80%. Can he make a similar jump in field goal accuracy this year? Can he reduce his turnovers? From the energy, concentration, and determination with which he plays the game, who would bet against him? Smith went from a player scorned by many fans to a really consistent and cool performer, shooting and handling the ball much better than he had in his freshman year and even at the start of last season. Crabbe, no longer a reticent shooter, appears poised for an even stronger season. As for Kamp, the same line of reasoning applies, and hopefully his present good health (regarding, of course, his knees) will be a constant the whole year.
Second, Cal has the real fortune of having as its coach one of the all-time great college coaches in Mike Montgomery. This should not be underestimated. It is hard to imagine that any other coach in the conference would have been able to coax a (tied-for) 4th place finish out of the inexperienced, thin team that Montgomery so masterfully guided last season. Montgomery has now had an additional year to mold the Cal program. Montgomery said last year that it takes at least 3 or 4 years to create a good defensive team. Given that his first two recruiting classes were really small (Jorge alone in the first year, then Sanders-Frison, Bak, and Smith in the second), Monty still has not had a great deal of time with his own recruits. Still, this is his fourth year, and it can be expected that this year’s team will reflect his teaching/coaching/competitiveness more than have the previous three. Montgomery is almost without peer in getting his players to play as a unit, where the whole is more than the sum of the parts.