Justin Cobbs (USATSI)
Oregon and its bevy of high-scoring guards? Colorado and its four returning starters from last season? Or UCLA and its devastating transition attack?
Less than three weeks later, we may have an answer: None of them.
With Oregon slumping, Colorado losing its best player for the season and UCLA having already lost at home to Arizona, the Pac-12 team that appears most capable of pushing the Wildcats is surprising Cal. The Bears pounded previously surging Washington 82-56 on Wednesday night to improve to 4-0 in the Pac-12 and move into a first-place tie with the Wildcats.
Seeing Cal (13-4, 4-o) atop the Pac-12 standings is unexpected considering the Bears' up-and-down non-league performance, but in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising. Though Cal dropped four games in non-league play and didn't beat anyone better than Nevada or Arkansas, the Bears returned four starters from an NCAA tournament team last season, added a deep freshman class and weren't at full strength for three of their losses.
Top big man Richard Solomon didn't play in Cal's Maui losses against Syracuse and Dayton. Guard Ricky Kreklow was injured for the Bears' loss at Creighton and heralded freshman Jabari Bird left with an ankle injury in the first half. There's no excuse for Cal's nightmarish loss against UC Santa Barbara, but that performance looks more like an aberration with every game the Bears play.
The biggest difference for Cal since the start of Pac-12 play is the performance of Justin Cobbs, who has averaged 17.3 points and 7.8 assists in four conference games. The former Minnesota transfer has now fully embraced the role of go-to scorer vacated by Allen Crabbe when he left early for the NBA draft.
Also encouraging is the Solomon and David Kravish, perhaps the best interior duo in the Pac-12 outside of Tucson. Kravish has improved his scoring and rebounding this season, while Solomon has ditched his finesse reputation and begun blocking shots, attacking the rim and chasing down loose balls with aggressiveness he only showed in flashes before.
Perhaps the most encouraging long-term sign for Cal is the development of its freshman class.
Jordan Mathews is still far too inefficient from the floor, but the 6-foot-3 guard has enjoyed an occasional huge scoring night. Christian Beyrens wasn't ready for the role of third big man at the start of the season, but he has gradually gotten more comfortable and shown the ability to defend, rebound and finish at the rim. And Bird only returned from his ankle injury Wednesday, but he previously averaged nearly 11 points per game before his injury.
Cal isn't without weaknesses. Interior depth behind Kravish and Solomon remains a concern. But if the Bears continue to play as well as they have the past two-plus weeks, there is nobody in the conference they can't beat.
- Sports & Recreation