If the Pac-12 is to rebound from last season's putrid showing, its going to need to get 4-5 squads into the NCAA Tournament this season. It would stand to reason that the California Golden Bears, one of the few consistent teams in the conference over the past couple of seasons, need to be one of those teams. A tournament team in three of the past four seasons, the Bears have plenty of firepower coming back in guards Allen Brabbe and Justin Cobbs, and an experienced frontcourt in David Kravish and Richard Solomon. Add to those one of the conference's best coaches in Mike Montgomery, and Cal needs to be a factor if this conference is going to get to the places it needs to go.
Further south in the Bay, the Stanford Cardinal are going through a frustrating stretch of four years in a row without a tournament berth. However, there is considerable optimism coming into this season, as the Cardinal return a dynamic backcout of Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, to go along with big man Dwight Powell. Johnny Dawkins has yet to make the NCAA Tournament during his run at Stanford. He has the talent to do so this year, and his job may depend on it.
California Golden Bears:
Cal was somewhat of a disappointment last season. Yes, they made the NCAA Tournament, but they faded down the stretch, choked away the Pac-12 title, got bounced early in the conference tournament, and got sent to Dayton in the First Four, where they lost to a South Florida team that probably didn't belong in the field. The bears lost two of their most productive players in Pac-12 Player of the Year Jorge Gutierrez (13.0 ppg, 4.1 apg) and F Harper Kamp (11.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Those are formidable losses, but Cal probably had the most depth of any team in the league last season, and the pieces are in place to sustain those losses.
It starts with a pair of high scoring guards. Allen Crabbe averaged over 15 ppg last season, and has the capability to do more. He is a shooter that can hit an open shot from anywhere. He's also a plus defender and a guy who is not afraid to get inside and rebound (5.7 rpg last season). What Crabbe does not do well is penetrate and finish at the rim, but that's the strength of his backcourt mate, Justin Cobbs (12.6 rpg, 5.0 apg last season). With Gutierrez graduating, these two will probably asked to do more, but they are more than capable (the pair combined for 49 points in Cal's opener against Cal-State Bakersfield). On paper, this is the best backcourt in the conference, and should be enough to vault Cal into the top third of the league.
Despite the loss of Kamp, the Bears have an experienced frontcourt as well. 6'10" senior Richard Solomon sat out the second half of last season with academic issues, but is back this season and will provide defensive toughness to Cal's frontcourt. in Solomon's absence, David Kravish, the 6'9" sophomore, held down the position surprisingly well as a freshman, besting Solomon's stats with 7 points and six rebounds. Two seniors, 6'9" Robert Thurman and 6'9" Bak Bak, were also in the rotation last season and should provide depth. The big question mark is who is going to provide a scoring punch and balance out the offense. As it stands now, too much of the offense is going to depend on Crabbe and Cobbs, and an off night by either could prove a difficult thing. Kravish probably has the most potential offensively, but needs to prove that he can do it on a consistent basis.
Cal certainly scheduled like a team that expects to make the NCAA Tournament. A matchup with Harvard isn't what we thought it would be after Harvard's two best players were suspended in an academic scandal, but Cal has two non-conference home games against what should be top-25 programs in UNLV and Creighton, make a road trip to a probable tournament team in Wisconsin, and headline a DirecTV Classic field that includes Georgia Tech, St. Mary's, and Drexel. In conference, the rotation sets up so that the Bears face only one round of games against the Washington and the Mountain schools.
While questions about the backcourt depth and frontcourt scoring persist, I am confident in Cal's depth and Mike Montgomery's coaching ability to believe that these won't be issues long term. College basketball is a guard's game, and the Bears have two of the best in the game, along with a coach that hasn't finished lower than fourth in the conference in his last 12 seasons. I'll predict a third place finish, with another trip to the NCAAs at the end of the season.
Stanford to me is much more interesting than Cal. I can see scenarios in which they break into the top third of the conference. But I can also see scenarios in which they crash and burn. They have a pair of guards who can score, but are clearly below the caliber of what Cal has to offer. They have potential in the frontcourt, but nothing proven. Finally, whereas Cal has a coach proven to be among the best, Stanford has a coach in Johnny Dawkins who has been a disappointment and may be on his last chance.
Two guards will be Stanford's best players this season. Sophomore Chaisson Randle set the league on fire last year, averaging 13.8 ppg a season ago. Randle plays a lot like Crabbe, in that he isn't a big penetrate and get to the rim guy, but is a deadly shooter from everywhere. Aaron Bright is the point guard, and averaged 11.7 ppg last season. However, he, too, is more of an outside shooter than a penetrator. Having two guys with that same style worked last year when they could both get open shots, but what happens when teams that don't have to respect their driving ability can play them tight on the perimeter? How far those two have come in that element of their games will be a major key to the Cardinal's season. Junior Anthony Brown will also start in a three guard lineup, and provides experience, though he's not much of a shooter (under 40% last season).
In the frontcourt, the Cardinal lose their rock from a season ago, forward Josh Owens, who averaged 11.6 ppg and 5.8 rpg last season. They have high hopes for junior Dwight Powell, and he responded with 27 points in Stanford's season opener against San Francisco. 6'7" Josh Huestis will start alongside him in the frontcourt, and averaged 5/5 last year.
The problem for Stanford is that, while the starters are set, there is not a whole lot of experience behind them, nor is there a ton of size in the frontcourt outside of Powell. Whether a pretty decent recruiting class and a bunch of sparingly used holdovers can provide the depth that the Cardinal will need is a big question mark.
Stanford also has a pretty loaded preseason schedule that will allow them to impress the NCAA selection committee. They have a pair of road trips--one they should win at Northwestern, and a really tough one against ACC favorite NC State. They are also part of a loaded Battle4Atlantis field. They play Missouri in the first round, and either Louisville or Northern Iowa in the second. Duke, Memphis, VCU, and Minnesota are other teams that Stanford could face at that event.
I think how the Cardinal do in these games will give us a good idea of which way their season will go. If they can win a tough game or two in that non-conference schedule, I'll believe that a Tournament bid is possible. If not, they are probably headed to the NIT, just like last season.