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When Patrick Christopher decided last April not to declare for the NBA draft, he called Jerome Randle, his backcourtmate at Cal, and arranged to meet him at a Bay Area restaurant. "He was excited when I told him," Christopher says of returning for his senior season. "We came in together as freshmen and have always wanted to get to the point where expectations were [high]."
The two Golden Bears got what they wished for after their team jumped from ninth in the Pac-10 in 2007--08 to a third-place tie and an NCAA tournament berth last season under first-year coach Mike Montgomery. Now Cal and Washington are the co-favorites to win the conference.
Christopher, who developed into one of the Pac-10's best defenders, and Randle, a point guard who led the league in assists (5.0 per game), averaged 32.8 points between them and were All-Pac-10 selections. Overall, the team's strengths are experience (four senior starters total) and three-point shooting. Swingman Theo Robertson shot 48.7% from beyond the arc last season, and as a team the Bears hit a nation's-best 42.7%.
The lack of an inside game is the main sore point. "We're not very big," says Montgomery. "We don't have a shot blocker or someone who can really clean the glass." The Bears, who ranked sixth in the league in defensive field goal percentage (44.2%) and eighth in scoring defense (allowing 69.2 points per game), need Harper Kamp, a junior best suited to run the high-post sets Montgomery favors, to bounce back quickly from off-season arthroscopic knee surgery.
They also need more consistency from Christopher, who shot 21.7% from three-point range in Cal's 11 losses and 50.0% in their 22 wins. "When we lost at USC, I struggled [four points]; when we played them at home, I had one of my best games, with 29 points," he says. "What would have happened had I played the whole season like I did against USC at home? We have to seize the moment."
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Mike Montgomery (2nd year)