BERKELEY — Looking forward, the issue is not merely whether the Cal basketball team can get better. The bigger question may be: Can the Golden Bears be different?

Ousted from their first NCAA Tournament in three years after a loss to Maryland on Thursday, the Bears were left to reconcile the swift and harsh end to their season.

"It's amazing. It seems like coach (Mike) Montgomery just came, we were just getting excited about the potential of the team," junior forward Jamal Boykin said. "And now it's all over, and we have to start it again."

The Bears, 22-11, tied for third in the Pac-10 a year after finishing ninth, and got to the NCAA Tournament in Montgomery's first season at Berkeley. They will return intact, save for losing center Jordan Wilkes to graduation.

Now, as the only one of six Pac-10 teams shoved from the NCAA bracket after the first round, they must ponder whether they realistically can expect to be better simply with another year of maturity.

The losses to Maryland and to USC the week before at the Pac-10 tournament exposed issues the Bears have talked about all season, flaws that were covered up when the nation's most efficient 3-point shooting team was allowed to flourish from the perimeter.

"The basic message was just that we have a lot of work to do. There's a lot of growth that needs to go on," sophomore forward Harper Kamp said. "The little things. For everything we do well, there's just twice as much we need to improve on."

Topping the list is the need to be more versatile on offense. Teams figured out Cal can be neutralized by shutting down their 3-point attack because the Bears had no place else to go.

"It's get up and force them, bang them and hold them, push them, so forth, and we just weren't able (to respond)," Montgomery said. "So we have to get better at what we do, and we've got to get a whole lot better at what we don't do."

A low-post threat would force opposing defenses to loosen up on Cal's perimeter, although it seems unlikely the Bears will have the personnel to dramatically add to their interior scoring.

Incoming center Markhuri Sanders-Frison, at 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, averaged 9.0 points and 6.5 rebounds for a South Plains JC team that was 27-4 against high-level Texas competition.

If Sanders-Frison doesn't offer the promise of a big scorer in the post, he may contribute to making the Bears physically tougher.

"We got hurt with physical teams," Montgomery acknowledged. "We've got to get tougher-minded, and some of that comes in the weight room."

Montgomery said all season that defense takes time, and while the Bears made progress, their coach wouldn't go any further last week than to call the Bears "an OK defensive team." That won't win a championship.

The 3-point shooting trio of Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson returns, but all three must add to their games, too, Montgomery said. In particular, Randle needs to be more efficient and Christopher must find more consistency.

The Bears should be deeper, which could allow the starters to stay fresher. It would help if Kamp, who battled a sore right knee all season, is able to get healthy. Freshmen Jorge Gutierrez, Omondi Amoke and D.J. Seeley could all be ready for larger roles, and Montgomery said he's eager to see improvement from 7-2 center project Max Zhang.

The metamorphosis of Cal's program under Montgomery is just beginning. The Bears will not be a finished product a year from now, but they can be better.

Robertson hopes the loss to Maryland provides lasting motivation.

"Just remember this feeling," he said from a somber Cal dressing room, "and take pride in what we're trying to build here."

Contact Jeff Faraudo at jeffscribe@aol.com.