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FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2011 file photo, California guard Jorge Gutierrez answers a question during the PAC-12 Conference NCAA college basketball media day, in Los Angeles. An illegal immigrant, his parents, Bertha and Fernando, dropped their son off in Denver, helped him sign up for school and then returned to their hectic lives in Chihuahua, Mexico, to work and care for two older sons. It was an excruciating choice for the tight-knit family. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas, File)

Jorge Gutierrez speaks carefully and quietly, still uncomfortable with a second language that he has mastered so sufficiently, he soon will graduate from Cal.

The senior guard from Mexico also has become the emotional leader of the basketball team, which is expected to challenge for its second conference championship in three seasons.

"At first, I thought I didn't belong here," Gutierrez said while sitting in a hallway at Haas Pavilion. "But now it's my house. This is my court, and you play the way I want you to play."

Few in college basketball play the way Gutierrez does. He attacks the game, enjoys playing defense, backs down from no one and is concerned only with winning.

"Everybody wants guys like Jorge," said coach Mike Montgomery, who made Gutierrez his first recruit in the spring of 2008 after watching him for 10 minutes in a pickup game. "If I could get eight Jorges in different sizes, you know you'd win because he's a tremendous competitor."

Thomas Robinson, a 6-foot-9 forward at Kansas, may have come to that conclusion last season after mixing it up with 6-foot-3 Gutierrez during a physical game at Haas. Tempers flared when the two scrambled on the floor for a loose ball, but something more serious was prevented when Cal teammate Harper Kamp grabbed Gutierrez by the leg and pulled him from the scrum.

"I was helping the other guy, not Jorge," Kamp said.

Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said Gutierrez is a player you can only enjoy if he's on your team.

Even so, Sendek said, "I loved him from the outset, because he has passion and he has grit. He has a tremendous motor and he plays hard. It seems to me like he would be an absolute thrill to coach.

"He's clearly one of the best players in our conference."

Lindy's preseason magazine predicts that Gutierrez will be the Pac-12's player of the year, and the Bears were picked second in the conference by the media because they have two of the league's elite players in addition to Gutierrez.

Kamp is a smart, tough 6-foot-8 senior forward who occasionally is limited by chronically sore knees. Wing Allen Crabbe seems ready to blossom after earning conference freshman of the year honors last season.

"I think we'll play together, we'll play smart," Gutierrez said. "We'll be really good."

No one envisioned how good Gutierrez would become when Montgomery signed him, largely on the recommendation of former players who had seen him play high school ball in Denver.

"I would like him, was what they said," Montgomery recalled. "You've got a kid like Jorge who's got a tremendous amount of pride, hates to lose, competes ... that's generally going to work for me."

Primarily a defensive substitute during his freshman season, Gutierrez has added to his skill set each year. He averaged 14.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists last season and enters his senior season ranked second among active Pac-12 players in points, assists and steals.

Gutierrez still isn't satisfied with the consistency of his jump shot, but he made 36 3-point baskets last season and converted 80 percent from the foul line. Now Montgomery wants Gutierrez to be a more vocal leader and to understand the team can't afford for him to be over-aggressive and get into foul trouble.

Scott Stirling, director of scouting for the Sacramento Kings, said Gutierrez's defensive instincts will get him a good look from NBA scouts.

"I compare his toughness to Joe Kapp, who's maybe the toughest athlete I've ever seen," Sterling said, referring to the former Cal quarterback.

A possible future in the NBA is "in my head," Gutierrez said.

It's nothing he could have imagined seven years ago at the age of 15, when he made the decision to leave his home in Chihuahua, Mexico, for the U.S.

"It was hard -- for me, for my family, for everybody," Gutierrez said. "I made some good decisions that at the point I made them I wasn't sure about. But they turned out great."

Said Montgomery, "There's no question most of us don't understand some of the obstacles he's had to deal with in getting to where he is. It's very impressive.

"And through it all he's really a nice kid."