2011-2012 Storylines: Can men’s hoops rise atop the Pac again?

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Cal was slated to finish near the bottom of the conference before Mike Montgomery took the Bears dancing in his first year.

One season later, they stood atop the Pac-10 conference for the first time in half a century.

After an overachieving 2010-2011 campaign, which saw Cal finish tied for fourth place despite losing eight players (94 percent of the team’s offense), the Bears look like a conference contender once again. Will we see Montgomery complete another two-year road to the top next spring?

With four of five starters returning, Cal shouldn’t see a repeat last year’s early offensive growing pains. Leading scorers Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp are back for their final campaigns, while reigning Freshman of the Year Allen Crabbe could emerge as one of the Pac-12’s best players after blossoming in conference play last season. Junior point guard  Brandon Smith returns to run the show from the start, with exciting Minnesota transfer Justin Cobbs waiting in the wings.

The team’s biggest questions, however, are the same as last year’s: size and depth.

The departed Markhuri Sanders-Frison provided reliable double-digit scoring down low, along with bullish defense and rebounding. Richard Solomon and Bak Bak may be athletic, but they’re also slender and raw. Can they (especially Solomon) take on bigger minutes this season?

UCLA, Arizona and Washington may have lost top talent to the NBA, but all three contenders all remain loaded — especially on their front lines.

Cal, meanwhile, may not have the luxury to withstand an injury or two from top players. Last year’s NIT run, for example, presented a worst-case scenario: Sanders-Frison sat due to a dislocated right shoulder, Kamp battled illness and Gutierrez suffered an injury in round two against Colorado.

Montgomery’s Bears proved last season that they can compete, even when undermanned. With some good health, a conference crown — the first of the Pac-12 era — is not out of the question.

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