Each time Allen Crabbe overhears someone suggest Cal can't duplicate last season's success after graduating its top four scorers, a familiar look of defiance washes over the otherwise softspoken shooting guard's face.
It's the same expression Crabbe had in high school whenever someone said he wasn't strong enough to play at the high-major level in college. Or that there was no way he could lead tiny Los Angeles Price High School to a state championship in a division that featured schools more than 10 times its size.
"It's definitely motivation whenever people say you can't do something," Crabbe said by phone. "We have a whole new five coming in, but that doesn't mean we'll be rebuilding next season. Everyone has a chance to work hard and compete for a spot."
Crabbe is the centerpiece of a decorated five-man recruiting class that Cal coach Mike Montgomery hopes will soften the blow of losing the core of a team that produced the Bears' first conference title in more than five decades. Pac-10 player of the year Jerome Randle graduated, productive starters Patrick Christopher, Theo Robertson and Jamal Boykin are also gone and rotation players D.J. Seeley and Omondi Amoke transferred.
Although Harper Kamp's return from a knee injury gives Cal a legit back-to-the-basket scorer and Jorge Gutierrez is a scrappy perimeter defender, there will be plenty of opportunity for the incoming freshmen to contribute immediately. Crabbe has blossomed from a stand-still shooter into a dynamic scorer, point guard Gary Franklin and small forward Alex Rossi can both stretch a defense and explosive late signee Emerson Murray flew under the radar as a result of an ankle injury.
"We proved last year that you win with juniors and seniors, but we're excited about coaching these kids," Montgomery said by phone. "I have no expectations for next season one way or the other. The goal is to establish a program of good kids working hard. I think there's enough talent there that we can surprise people, but I also would be surprised if we were picked near the leaders."
It wouldn't be a huge surprise if Crabbe helps Cal exceed expectations next season because he has been doing that throughout his basketball career.
A skilled but slender guard who didn't draw a lot of interest from marquee programs early in his high school career, Crabbe proved the skeptics wrong after working with a trainer to put on 20 to 25 pounds of muscle between his junior and senior seasons. The 6-foot-6 wing averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds as a senior at Price, showcasing his improved strength by posting up smaller guards or finishing around the rim off the dribble.
"He was so dedicated to getting stronger, and it changed his game completely," Price coach Michael Lynch said by phone. "If anything, I think the added strength and confidence going to the basket caused him to become the player he was his senior year."
Whereas other Pac-10 schools were hesitant to offer Crabbe a scholarship before he filled out, Cal offered him a scholarship as a junior and gambled that his body would one day catch up with his skill level. Crabbe committed in late-December of 2008 -- but only after watching tape of how Montgomery uses shooting guards and seeking the advice of a former Montgomery assistant at Stanford to make sure he was making the right decision.
A horde of big-name coaches called Lynch last summer to see if the commitment Crabbe had made to Cal a few months earlier was solid, but the shooting guard never had any second thoughts. He appreciated that the Cal staff recognized his potential sooner than other programs, he relished the opportunity to play right away and he felt he could thrive in Montgomery's system.
"Even when he started getting a lot of notoriety and schools were asking how committed is he, he never wavered," Lynch said. "There were more than a few that wanted to know if he was still open for recruitment, but he turned all of them down."
Crabbe began summer session at Cal a few weeks ago, an experience that has tested his time management so far since the class assignments have been more challenging than anything he experienced in high school.
In between classes, meeting new people and getting settled, Crabbe wants to improve his defense and his ball handling and continue to get stronger this summer so he's ready to help the Bears defy expectations come November.
"I have faith in my team," Crabbe said. "Even though we're going to be young, I feel that anything is possible. If we all work hard and push each other, I think we can have success."