Cal looking like the new Pac-12 favorite

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Cal guard Brandon Smith said his teammates felt slighted when the media failed to pick the Bears as the Pac-12 preseason favorites, using whatever scrap of disrespect they could find as motivation.

The Bears finished second in the voting to UCLA, which subsequently got embarrassed at home by mid-major teams in its first two games and suspended its top scorer indefinitely. Meanwhile, Cal has beaten its first three opponents by an average of 21 points.

After a 72-55 win Tuesday against Ohio Valley Conference preseason favorite Austin Peay that saw the Bears lead by 29 points at one point, they spoke of continuing on in the CBE Classic and spreading the word that No. 22 Cal is indeed for real.

“We get to play some top teams, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to show the nation what we’ve got,” said Smith, whose team heads to Kansas City to play Georgia and then either Missouri or Notre Dame. “The ranking, to us, doesn’t matter much. It’s a just a number by our name. We’re out to show what Cal basketball is all about.”

It was only two seasons ago when confetti floated down from the rafters at Haas Pavilion with Cal having clinched its first conference title in 50 years. After a transition year last season that went better than expected with a short-handed team, Jorge Gutierrez, Allen Crabbe and Harper Kamp have hopes of winning it again.

“We look at that [second-place Pac-12 pick], and anything we can do to get a chip on our shoulder is good,” said Kamp, who sat out the season injured the last time Cal won the title. “We just have to play like we’re the underdog, and we need to prove ourselves night in, night out.”

The Bears are getting contributions from up and down their roster. Gutierrez scored 14 points and held Austin Peay’s TyShwan Edmondson to four points on 2-for-10 shooting. Smith said when he finds out the opposing team’s best player is a shooting guard and Gutierrez gets to guard him, “I just smile inside.”

Kamp and freshman forward David Kravish, who has impressed in the early going, scored 12 points apiece and took advantage of an Austin Peay frontcourt that was without top rebounder John Fraley, who is out indefinitely with a concussion. Smith scored 11 points and didn’t commit a turnover. The Bears have also gotten good production off the bench from Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs, who can play both guard positions.

Even on a night when Crabbe struggled and scored five points on 2-for-12 shooting, Cal dominated. The Bears have led by at least 20 at halftime in each of their three games. Austin Peay was held to 13 first-half points. Now Cal has to show it can do it against better competition.

“It will be a bigger challenge for us,” coach Mike Montgomery said.