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Team preview: Cal Golden Bears

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.

COACH AND PROGRAM

Until California finally crashed and burned last season, losing four of its final five games largely because its key players simply wore out, the Bears never did lose more than one game in a row.

That resiliency may have been because of the presence of guard Jorge Gutierrez (13.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.1 apg) and forward Harper Kamp (11.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg), who were not only statistical leaders but also set an undisputed tone in the locker room.

"If we lost games the last couple of years we had no concerns about how our team was handling things because we knew the older guys were going to come to practice and get back to work," said Jay John, a Bears assistant coach last season who is now Cal's assistant athletic director for basketball development. "Those guys set the stage in how we did everything as a team. There was never any question who was in charge. Now there's a question."

That the Bears have talent this season is not the question. Cal may have the league's best backcourt duo in 6-6 junior Allen Crabbe (15.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6-2 junior Justin Cobbs (12.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 5.0 apg), plus it gets back 6-10 junior Richard Solomon (6.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) from a costly academic suspension in the second half of last season.

California Golden Bears

What's more, coach Mike Montgomery has recruited enough help to give the Bears some decent depth.

But there's still no telling who will lead this team. Cal is hoping that Cobbs, who splits point guard duties with 5-11 senior Brandon Smith, will join Crabbe in taking charge.

"Those are the guys," John said. "It's really incumbent on them to set leadership patterns for the other guys. If they are able to do that, that will be a significant part of the team."

Crabbe's personality, however, suggests he's best at leading by example. Crabbe became the Pac-10's freshman of the year in 2010-11 but didn't really break out until after Gary Franklin's sudden departure early that season.

As good as he is, Crabbe still will occasionally pass up a good shot in favor of the pass or hesitate to drive into the lane.

"I just don't like making mistakes, and I don't take those risks, and that's what really holds me back," Crabbe told the Daily Californian last season. "I'm trying to play a perfect game and not turning the ball over, but I just have to realize that you're gonna make mistakes."

Crabbe doesn't make many mistakes. He made 62 of 155 3-pointers (.400) as a freshman and poured in 83 of 208 (39.9 percent) from behind the arc last season when he made the Pac-12's 10-man first team. His average of 2.44 per game led the Pac-12 last season.

All that, too, despite having missed the summer of 2011 with a broken nose while slogging through the end of last season with an abdominal injury.

Cobbs, meanwhile, quickly made up for lost time as a redshirt sophomore last season after transferring from Minnesota. Also of Los Angeles, Cobbs had chosen the Gophers in part because he said the Bears, having already offered a scholarship to Smith, did not have one for him.

Once he was invited and eligible to play at Cal, however, Cobbs quickly beat out Smith (2.8 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 2.1 apg), proving himself a more effective scorer who could still handle the point.

The move wasn't easy on Smith, who had been a starter at virtually every point in his career except when he learned behind Jerome Randle as a freshman. He struggled once Cobbs took over, but at least both players know their roles this time around.

While Cobbs and Smith could play together, Cal is hoping they won't have to because Cobbs can struggle to defend two guards. But that becomes unnecessary if 6-6 wing Ricky Kreklow (2.1 ppg, 1.3 rpg in 2010-11 at Missouri/Rock Bridge HS/Rock Bridge, Mo.) and 6-3 guard Tyrone Wallace (22.2 ppg, Bakersfield HS/Bakersfield, Calif.) can help enough on the wings.

Cal recruited Kreklow with the expectation that he would become a starter, and his basketball smarts and ability to shoot should complement Crabbe.

While Kreklow and Crabbe are similarly sized, both with shooting ability and good but not great speed, there is a slight difference on defense. Kreklow is slightly more physical, and therefore may be more suited to guarding a physical forward, while Crabbe may be better defending a perimeter-oriented player.

Wallace, rated by ESPN as the No. 44 shooting guard in the country, is versatile enough to play point guard or either wing spot and will challenge Kreklow for the starting job or at least be the first wing off the bench. He's a good passer, while his athleticism and length make him an intriguing defensive prospect.

"We fell in love with Wallace the first time we saw him," Montgomery said. "He is a combo guard with great length. His ability to create shots for others, to defend, and to rebound are exactly what we need to help us win."

Los Angeles' Price High School, which already produced Crabbe and Solomon, is also providing Cal with another wing this season, 6-7 Kahlil Johnson (16.0 ppg), a bouncy, versatile forward who will be effective in the long run, if not this season.

Johnson "is a good shooter who gives us great flexibility and the ability to move our players around and create match-up problems," Montgomery said.

The Bears also may get help at forward from 6-7 Jeff Powers (1.3 ppg, 0.4 rpg), a transfer from the University of Denver who played in 19 games last season.

Inside, the return of Solomon (6.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg), who played in just 13 games last season before he was lost to academics, gives the Bears a solid four-man rotation in the two post spots. There is also 6-9 sophomore David Kravish (6.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg), 6-10 senior Robert Thurman (3.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg) and 6-9 senior Bak Bak (1.8 ppg, 1.3 rpg).

Solomon is expected to return a more mature player, after his academic issues not only cost him more than half a season but also might have cost Cal the Pac-12 regular-season title.

Solomon was first suspended for a game on Dec. 4 at San Diego State for conduct issues, and then ruled ineligible for academic reasons on Jan. 18.

But Solomon regained his eligibility after the season and made a point of staying in Berkeley to work on his game and academics all summer. John said the experience appeared to have matured Solomon, who realized the Bears needed everybody to contribute if they were to win a conference title.

"It was a humbling experience for him," John said. "I don't think when it first happened, he understood the full ramifications. But at the end he understood it a lot deeper.

"He's improved. He stayed in school, working on his classes and elevated his GPA. Now, emotionally and mentally he understands why all these things are important."

The Bears wound up just missing the conference title without Solomon, but they did have the Pac-12's highest RPI (45) and were deemed the only conference team worthy of an NCAA tournament at-large berth.

One reason for their survival inside was the emergence of Kravish (6.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg), the long and wiry power forward from Missouri who started 24 of 34 games. Despite carrying just 210 pounds (on a good day) on his 6-9 frame last season, Kravish thrived inside and managed to make 59.4 percent of his shots.

The Bears knew he was talented but had to figure his body would need time to mature before he produced. They were wrong. Kravish has an instinct about being in the right spots, scoring inside with a minimal physical presence, and he's active enough to scoop up a loose ball or block a shot.

Once it became obvious Kravish could play, of course, the rest of the Pac-12 became wiser. He was knocked around during the second half of conference play, finding trouble in some post-up situations, and the Bears are now hoping he'll be able to hold the 220 pounds he weighed over the summer.

On the other end of the size spectrum, the Bears have an intriguing story in the 270-pound Thurman, the son of a weightlifter dad and military mother whose itinerant childhood lifestyle continued into college.

Thurman moved so often as a military brat he hardly played basketball in high school, though he did run some cross-country. He entered Antelope Valley College but left and instead put up eye-opening numbers at Division III Norwich University in Vermont.

From there, he walked on at Cal, received a scholarship before last season and, when Solomon was lost to academics, became a contributor.

And, by the time Thurman dropped 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds at Washington last season, leading the Bears to a 69-66 win, he morphed into a fan favorite fondly known as the "Thurmanator."

Thurman told reporters after the Washington game that Montgomery asked him to pick it up.

"We were down a man," Thurman said. "Any time you're down a man, somebody has got to step up. You can't just fill a void with nothing. He told me I needed to play more and I needed to play better and I needed to make good decisions, and that's what I did."

Thurman may still have more upside left in his 6-10, 270-pound frame, too. Thurman scored many of his points off of dunks and other creations directly around the basket -- taking advantage of the focus defenders often rightly placed on Cal's wings -- but he may learn to score in transition and get open on his own.

The Bears don't have nearly as much bulk with Bak, who was listed at 225 pounds last season, and it showed in the Sudanese refugee's limitations in rebounding. However, Bak was in better shape and gained weight over the summer.

Cal also has a fifth option in the post with 6-9 sophomore Christian Behrens (1.1, 1.0).

After having multiple knee issues in high school, Behrens was hurt in an exhibition game and expected to redshirt last season. He asked to play once Solomon was ruled ineligible, but was minimally effective.

Another post prospect, Danish big man Sami Eleraky, failed to qualify, while the Bears also lost a few players to transfer over playing time issues: 6-6 guard Alex Rossi (three games played) and 6-3 guard Emerson Murray (1.7 ppg, 0.8 rpg).

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: A

BENCH/DEPTH: B-

FRONTCOURT: B

INTANGIBLES: C+

Cal stripped away its gritty face in Gutierrez and lost a heady contributor in Kamp, but there are still plenty of reasons this team can contend for the league title.

The Bears just need a few things to happen. Like having Crabbe develop into the kind of star player who makes everyone better. Getting Crabbe, Cobbs and Smith to galvanize the younger players.

And, of course, getting a full season from a more mature Solomon, giving Cal some much-needed balance.

The one thing that is certain, though, is that Montgomery's teams at Stanford and Cal never fall below expectations. So if you're tempted to discount the Bears, be careful.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.