It's never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: the California Golden Bears.
Normally, the Cal creating a buzz from spring signing period is Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari. But second-year Golden Bears' coach Cuonzo Martin managed to do something the Wildcats did not in the Class of 2015: sign two top-10 recruits. Cal is now sitting with arguably its best class ever, making its basketball program relevant during the months it usually has quietly bowed into the shadows.
The Bears finished eighth in the Pac-12 last season and did not appear in the NCAA tournament or NIT for the first time since 2007. But there's a noticeable difference in Berkeley. The anticipation for the 2015-16 season is greater than it has been in some time.
When Ivan Rabb, a 6-foot-11 power forward from Oakland, chose the Bears over the Arizona Wildcats, he remarked how surprised he was to see Cal students attending his announcement. Rabb is ranked eighth in the Class of 2015 by Recruiting Nation. Keeping him close to home, instead of seeing him suit up for a league rival, also might encourage elite Bay Area players in the future to do the same.
Jaylen Brown -- the last top-five player to announce -- shocked and broke the hearts of interested parties in Michigan, Kentucky and North Carolina by choosing to take the cross-country trek from Marietta, Georgia, to attend Cal.
Rabb's signing could simply be viewed as a hometown kid staying true to a local program. However, signing Brown, a 6-foot-7 small forward ranked No. 4 by Recruiting Nation, signaled just how much things have changed under Martin. Cal had not signed even a top-20 player since the ESPN 100 made its debut in 2007. During that same span, the Bears had only secured five top-100 commits, led by Jabari Bird, who was No. 23 in 2013.
What the immediate future holds: Well, for starters, high expectations -- and it's not just because of their highly talented recruiting class. It's because of who those freshmen will be joining.
Guard Tyrone Wallace's announcement to return for his senior season was as big for the Bears as the decisions made by Rabb and Brown. Wallace was the only player in the Pac-12 to rank in the top five in scoring (17.1), rebounding (7.1) and assists (4) last season. Needless to say, he was invaluable to the Bears offensively. Combine his made field goals with assists and Wallace accounted for 41 percent of Cal's total baskets.
Junior guard Jordan Matthews led the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting percentage (44.3) last season, and that was in an offensively limited lineup. Considering the Bears will have more scoring options now, Matthews could become the biggest beneficiary, perhaps with many more open opportunities from deep.
Bird, a 6-foot-6 junior guard, missed 10 games last season with a foot injury. His time off the floor slowed his development, but he showed signs of improvement down the stretch of the season. He upped his scoring average to 13.4 points over the last eight games of the season.
Add Rabb and Brown, and the Bears' potential starting lineup will arguably be the most athletic in the Pac-12. Rabb has considerable bounce. He'll be a rim protector who should make up for the team-leading 49 blocked shots David Kravish had last season. Brown has considerable versatility and can play every position except center. He's explosive on offense and is comfortable on the perimeter or the post.
The Bears were like many teams last season that struggled finding consistent scoring. They ranked 11th in the conference in scoring offense (66.5 points per game) and ranked 186th in adjusted offense, according to Ken Pomeroy. That shouldn't continue to be a problem this season.
Cal should have quality depth from a bench that played a lot of minutes last season. Senior forward Christian Behrens and sophomore guard Sam Singer started a combined 27 games last season. Singer is a quality backup point guard, who was second on the team with 97 assists. Sophomore 7-foot-1 center Kingsley Okoroh had the team's highest offensive rebounding rate. Junior forward Roger Moute a Bidias and sophomore guard Brandon Chauca will give Martin plenty of options to maintain lineups that keep the style and pace he wants.
Junior Stephen Domingo, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Georgetown, hopes that new scenery will help jump-start his career. Freshman Davon Dillard, a 6-foot-5 small forward, fills out a Bears roster flush with long, athletic players who are interchangeable defensively and will allow for all kinds of pressure.
The pressure to live up to its potential will now be on Cal, but that's one of those good problems to have.