Now that DeVon Hardin has returned to Cal, just how good will the Bears be next season? Probably pretty good. The only problem is they will be playing in arguably the toughest conference in the nation.
Six Pac-10 teams went to the NCAA Tournament last season, and all six of those teams are almost locks to return next season. UCLA, Washington State, Oregon and USC all likely will be preseason top 25 teams. Stanford and Arizona very well could be also.
Washington lost Spencer Hawes to the NBA draft but still has a strong nucleus of young talent, so the Huskies should be more relevant once again. And although Arizona State finished in last place, it lost several close games and has a strong recruiting class coming in for 2007-08. Really, it looks as though Oregon State is the only team that won’t be much of a threat.
If the Pac-10 can get more than six teams into next year’s NCAA Tournament, Cal could be a strong contender. No player will benefit more from Hardin’s return than sophomore Ryan Anderson, who was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder last season despite getting absolutely no help inside. With Jordan Wilkes and Jamal Boykin coming off the bench, the Bears will have one of the deepest front courts on the West Coast.
Hardin’s presence should alleviate some of the suffocating double-teams Anderson was subjected to last season. Anderson exhibited a variety of ways to score as a freshman and could have a huge year. Pac-10 Player of the Year honors wouldn’t be a stretch.
Another thing Cal has going for them is sophomore wing Patrick Christopher, who played well at the end of last season and should enter this year with a lot of confidence. He should assume the starting role at shooting guard in light of the departure of Omar Wilkes.
Cal’s biggest question will be at point guard, where either Nikola Knezevic or Jerome Randle will replace four-year starter Ayinde Ubaka. Randle was hot and cold last year as a freshman while Knezevic, also a sophomore, sat out the season with a knee injury.