The hype and hope that earned Cal a preseason No. 14 ranking by the Associated Press had everything to do with talent. The Bears returned with all-Pac-12 point guard Tyrone Wallace and welcomed five-star national recruits Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown.

But if the Bears want to fulfill their potential as the Pac-12 schedule begins Friday, coach Cuonzo Martin said, "It's not about talent."

It's about effort and toughness and defense, and Martin saw none of that over Thanksgiving weekend, when the Bears lost twice in Las Vegas. They allowed 44 second-half points to San Diego State, then 94 the next day to Richmond.

Cal has regrouped since that lost weekend, winning six of seven. The only blemish: A 63-62 overtime loss at No. 5 Virginia. Most importantly, the Bears embraced defense.

In seven December games, they have held opponents to 35.7-percent shooting and 59.9 points per game -- an average of nearly 16 points per team below their normal output.

Bob McKillop, who has coached at Davidson for 27 seasons, called the Bears' defense "extraordinary," after Cal's 86-60 win on Monday night.

There are at least a half-dozen contenders for the top spot in the Pac-12. If the Bears aspire to get there, it won't just be about talent.

1. ARIZONA (12-1): The Wildcats seem less imposing than in recent years, perhaps because of a schedule that, aside from a win at Gonzaga, provided few challenges. Senior center Kaleb Tarczewski has missed eight games because of a foot injury and it's unclear when he will be healthy. Transfer Ryan Anderson has been as advertised and Arizona plays defense, rebounds and has good depth.


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2. UTAH (11-2): Yes, the Utes lost by 24 points to Miami, but they also beat Duke at Madison Square Garden and they have perhaps the Pac-12's best player in 7-foot sophomore center Jakob Poeltl. Utah makes up for so-so defense with a potent and efficient offense.

3. OREGON (11-2): The Ducks have overcome all sorts of injuries because they are the deepest team in the Pac-12. Add to that mix senior Dylan Ennis, the starting point guard last season at Villanova, who missed 12 games with a broken foot. The Ducks don't rebound well, but they are fast and they should be better a month from now.

4. CAL (10-3): The Bears have three potential NBA draft picks, but they also have questions. Can they make their free throws? And can they function when opponents inevitably throw a zone defense at them? A key: Jabari Bird must lift his game.

5. UCLA (9-4): The Bruins beat Kentucky and Gonzaga, but lost by 19 to Kansas and by 13 to North Carolina. Their starting five is strong, but they get very little from their bench and not much more from their defense. If they can play fast and stay healthy, they will be in the mix.

6. COLORADO (11-2): With better chemistry than they have had for a couple years -- and veteran big man Josh Scott playing at a high level -- the Buffaloes will be a factor. Their only losses were by six points to Iowa State and four points to SMU, both top-25 teams. Turnovers are a concern.

7. USC (11-2): The Trojans are tough to peg. There's a lot to like, including balance, size and speed. They score, work at playing defense and shoot the 3-pointer. But they have been an early-season tease in the past, then haven't delivered in the Pac-12. USC has to show it before we believe.

8. OREGON STATE (9-2): Senior guard Gary Payton II fills the stat sheet, but the Beavers' next three leading scorers are true freshmen. This is good news for the future, but experience matters in the Pac-12. So does the dirty work, and Oregon State is last in the conference in rebounding margin.

9. ARIZONA STATE (10-3): New coach Bobby Hurley challenged his team with a tough schedule, and the Sun Devils beat some good teams. They also lost to Sacramento State and struggled against Cal State Bakersfield. Forward Savon Goodman, the team's No. 2 scorer and top rebounder, has missed the past four games for an undisclosed reason.

10. STANFORD (7-4): Injuries have walloped the Cardinal, but a silver lining has been the emergence of sophomore guard Dorian Pickens, who is scoring 19.5 points the past four games. Forward Michael Humphrey is coming on. Stanford awaits the return of power forward Reid Travis, who has a stress reaction.

11. WASHINGTON (8-4): The Huskies can score but can't shoot. They crash the offensive boards but are 11th in the Pac-12 in rebounding margin. There are too many turnovers and too many freshmen -- five among their top six scorers. Home losses in recent games to Oakland and UC Santa Barbara don't bode well.

12. WASHINGTON STATE (8-4): The Cougars lost to three good teams, but haven't beaten one against a schedule rated as the league's weakest. Junior forward Josh Hawkinson, with nine double-doubles, might be the Pac-12's most under-appreciated player. But he needs more help.

For more on Cal sports, see the Bear Talk blog at ibabuzz.com/beartalk. Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at twitter.com/Jeff Faraudo.