THOUGH LOFTY national prognostications have placed the bar for Cal basketball at a height never seen during the Ben Braun years, it would be unfair to place full blame on the man who spent 12 years coaching the Golden Bears.

It's not Braun's fault that college basketball talent is not as rich or deep as it once was.

Truth is the national perception of the 2009-10 Bears says much more about the state of college hoops than it says about this particular team. Insofar as they return every key member of last season's 22-9 club, the Bears are positioned to benefit from the new standard. Specifically, they are better because gifted juniors Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher are now gifted seniors.

Practically every college basketball observer between the Pacific and the Atlantic considers these Bears a preseason top-15 team and, moreover, the preseason favorite to win the Pac-10 title.

"We've got a lot of people back and we had a decent season last year, surprised some people," coach Mike Montgomery says. "Generally speaking, I hope (the prognosticators) are right, that it works out that way."

The upshot is Randle and Christopher being handed a set of expectations not seen at Cal since Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray were running the fast break in 1993-94.

Yet Randle and Christopher do not project to the kind of NBA lottery status afforded Kidd, who was drafted second overall in 1994 by Dallas, and Murray, who went five picks later to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Kidd and Murray, however, failed to meet expectations at Cal. The 1993-94 Bears were preseason favorites to win the conference; they finished tied for second. They were ranked No. 6 in the preseason and that was easily their highest all season. The biggest disappointment was that those Bears under coach Todd Bozeman were bounced out in the first round of the tournament.

Given this bit of history, what has been laid at the feet of Randle and Christopher — as well as Montgomery — is at least as much blessing as burden.

"I think we can manage," says Christopher, a 6-foot-5 wing.

"It's a lot of pressure on us," Randle, the 5-9 point guard, says. "I think we're ready for the challenge."

Christopher and Randle have an opportunity to win a conference title, something not done by any of Cal's stars in 41 years of Pac-8/Pac-10 hoops. They also have a chance to establish Cal as a consistent contender in the current landscape, in which the game's best tend to flee after one season.

This turnover has diluted talent, placing an increased premium on effort, which is a prerequisite if Cal is to fulfill its potential. It would compensate for the absence of an impact post man and a general lack of size. It's the only way for the Bears to stay at or near the top of the Pac-10.

And that brings us to backup guard Jorge Gutierrez, the 6-3 human floor burn. Though Christopher and Randle lead by skill and know-how, though Theo Robertson can shoot with the best of them and Jamal Boykin brings the intensity, Gutierrez can set the tone with relentless pluck and hustle.

So much so that Randle, when asked to visualize the results if everyone on the team matched Jorge's desire, responded by saying they'd "probably have a national championship."

An exaggeration, no doubt. For now the Bears will settle for continued separation from the upscale mediocrity of Braun's term. Though he brought a measure of stability to the program after inheriting significant talent and an ethical mess left behind by Bozeman, Braun's Pac-10 record was 110-106.

Montgomery, by contrast, had a 213-111 conference record at Stanford and was 11-7 in his first season at Cal.

So Randle's bold statement carries weight. Cal's biggest problems last season were its difficultly maintaining a high effort level and its failure to handle success. The Bears got precisely what they deserved, a first-round ouster in the NCAA Tournament.

As they open the season tonight at Haas Pavilion against Murray State, there is the promise of so much more. The Pac-10 media have picked the Bears to win the conference. They were ranked as high as No. 8 and no lower than 20th in the various preseason polls.

It's not because they're overrun with talent. It's because college basketball's floor has been lowered appreciably. Somebody is going to take advantage. Why not Cal?

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • TODAY: vs.
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