For the Cal basketball team, the equation is more complicated than merely asking the question: Will the Golden Bears be stronger in 2011-12?

No one is more aware of that than coach Mike Montgomery, who believes his Golden Bears will be better in a variety of ways: Wiser, deeper and with a more clear feel for roles entering the season.

"I don't know how we can have better chemistry," he said.

But how much the Bears can build on an 18-win season and fourth-place tie in the Pac-10 Conference depends also on the competition.

"UCLA, potentially, could be better. Arizona, based on the recruiting class, could be better," said Montgomery, without even mentioning Washington, the two-time Pac-10 tournament winner which returns with five of its top seven scorers. "You've still got your work cut out for you."

A year after losing 88.3 percent of its scoring from its 2009-10 Pac-10 championship squad, Cal will be back next season with 85.7 percent of its offensive punch.

Depending on possible defections elsewhere in the conference, the Cal threesome of Jorge Gutierrez, Harper Kamp and Allen Crabbe could be the league's most prolific returning threesome. The three combined to produce 41.4 points per game.

Already UCLA has lost sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt to early entry into the NBA draft, and teammate Malcolm Lee has put his toe in the water, although he retains the opportunity to return because he hasn't hired an agent. USC junior Nikola Vucevic also is gone, and Arizona's Derrick Williams and Washington State's Klay Thompson face the same decision.


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Cal expects to be intact, with the exception of losing senior center Markhuri Sanders-Frison. Gutierrez, Kamp and Sanders-Frison -- "tough customers," to use Montgomery's words -- set a fiercely competitive tone this season.

But it was an unexpected event that changed the season. For the better, it turned out.

Highly regarded freshman guard Gary Franklin, who had started 11 of the first 13 games and taken more shots than anyone on the team, abuptly left on Jan. 3. He later transferred to Baylor.

The mid-season departure impacted the Bears in a couple significant ways:

  • Crabbe became convinced he needed to be more assertive offensively. After averaging 8.4 points and shooting 30 percent from the 3-point arc through Cal's first 13 games, he hiked those numbers to 16.9 points and 46.3 percent the rest of the season and won Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors.

  • Sophomore Brandon Smith became the starting point guard, a position the Bears had shared until then. "Truthfully, Brandon saved our bacon," Montgomery said.

    The De La Salle High grad wasn't spectacular, but he was effective. Smith averaged 8.0 points, had nearly a 2-to-1 assist-to-turn over ratio and made 44 percent of his 3-point tries the rest of the season.

    All of it added up to an offensive that operated more smoothly. Cal bumped its scoring from 65.9 points over the first 13 games to 76.7 over the final 20. Its defense wasn't always up to the task, but scoring rarely was a problem anymore.

    The Bears figure to be deeper everywhere on the perimeter next season. Sophomore Justin Cobbs, who sat out this season after transferring from Minnesota, will challenge Smith at the point. Freshman Alex Rossi, who missed the entire season after undergoing hernia surgery, should provide another option at shooting guard. Freshman Emerson Murray also is back.

    But there are issues. Cal was not a good defensive team, owing partly to its lack of size and depth up front. The 6-foot-7, 265-pound Sanders-Frison will be replaced by 6-10, 220-pound sophomore-to-be Richard Solomon, who is quick and athletic but raw. His development will be critical.

    "He's got to have a back to the basket game, where if you throw it to him in the paint he has a way to score the ball," Montgomery said. "He's got to get in better shape. He can run and jump, but he gets tired fast. He's got to mature mentally, where he understands the game."

    Montgomery said sophomore forward Bak Bak needs more strength, and hopes to get some first-year contributions from incoming forwards David Kravish and Christian Behrens.

    The Bears have two available scholarships, and Montgomery said he'd love to sign a frontcourt player with some girth. But Washington, Washington State and USC are seeking the same thing.