They are not sexy, they may not get to a Sweet 16 and they're benefiting in large part because their league just lost yet another set of stars to the NBA, but the California Golden Bears are the smartest pick to win the Pac-12.
"At the end of the season, Cal was the best half-court offensive team we played" Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller told me. "They were a machine."
I know that the UCLA Bruins have better big men; Josh Smith, Reeves Nelson and the Wear twins can all score and make up a deeper front line than any in the league. The Washington Huskies bring in Tony Wroten, while Arizona brings in Josiah Turner, and both teams return solid supporting casts to play alongside their athletic freshman studs. But Cal is quietly a dangerous team with a deep bench and a bevy of scoring talent. While Washington, Washington State, Stanford, USC, Colorado and Oregon all losing their top scorers, and UCLA losing two of its top three scorers, Cal returns its top three scorers in the Pac 12.
The Bears have an important new addition joining their team as well in Minnesota transfer guard Justin Cobbs. Ask around the league: Some of the top head coaches who stopped by the Say No Classic raved about Cobbs. He has struggled some in Cal's overseas practices and games, but the expectations are for him to assume the starting point guard role.
Not only does Cal bring back its top three scorers, the Bears also return their top two assist men and their second-best rebounder in Harper Kamp. As a bonus, their top three scorers are all better than 80 percent from the free throw line. The addition of Cobbs should make the Bears very athletic at the point guard spot, and allow them to break down the defense in transition and when pressured, which they really struggled with last season. In addition, former walk-on Brandon Smith played pretty well last season and should be a solid sixth man.
Allen Crabbe had a spectacular freshman season despite missing time in conference play with a concussion. Crabbe averaged 17 points per game in Pac-10 contests, and that was without anyone breaking down the defense to create easy shot opportunities for him. The slender, 6-foot-6 wing is a very good midrange shooter with deep range to boot, and had he not broken his nose, he would have played for the U-22 national team. Simply put, Crabbe is the best perimeter player in the league. Convinced yet?
Cal also returns defensive stud Jorge Gutierrez, who exploded with added shots and minutes at the off-guard spot last season. Kamp is a solid low-post player who can face up and score as well. He and sophomore Richard Solomon, a shot-blocker/dunker, could form a solid 1-2 punch inside. On the schedule side, they do not have to go to Arizona (although they do not get Washington at home), and although their out-of-conference schedule is tough, it is not laden with top-10 teams the way it has been for the past couple of years.
And lastly, shhh, don't tell anybody, but Mike Montgomery has not won fewer than 10 conference games during the past 14 seasons he has coached in the league.
I get it; someone will undoubtedly tweet or comment that my view is skewed because my brother Gregg is on the Bears' staff. That's fine, just wait until the coaches vote for their league favorite and see who gets picked.