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2014-15 Season Preview: Cal

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Cuonzo Martin takes over at Cal with Jabari Bird and Tyrone Wallace poised for breakout seasons.

Cuonzo Martin takes over at Cal
Cuonzo Martin takes over at Cal
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Last Season: After making the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, Mike Montgomery's squad limped to the end of the year and fell short of a third consecutive trip to the dance. Cal entered conference play 9-4 and had one of the stronger non-conference slates facing off with Syracuse, Dayton and Creighton, all NCAA Tournament teams. It looked great early in conference play as they started 5-0, but Cal followed that with eight losses in their next 13 games. Mike Montgomery decided to retire after the year and was replaced with Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin.

Martin, despite dealing with a mid-season petition to bring back Bruce Pearl, led Tennessee to the Sweet Sixteen last season. And he should be able to thrive at Cal since he's a motivated, young coach that gets the most out of his players. Last season, the Volunteers had a top 20 defensive rating and top 20 defensive rebounding rate and Martin will try to bring that type of defensive intensity to Cal.

Key Losses: Justin Cobbs did everything for Cal last season. He was their leading scorer, facilitator and go-to-guy down the stretch. The Golden Bears might not miss Cobbs' scoring, but they certainly will miss his ability to create. Cobbs averaged 5.83 assists per game, which was second best in the conference, and also had a top 25 assist rate.

Cal also loses forward Richard Solomon, the team's most reliable big man. Solomon averaged a double-double last season and he grabbed 28.4 percent of the defensive rebounds while he was on the floor, the 5th best rate in the country. Although Cal will return a lot of talent, the loss of one of the best playmakers and one of the best rebounders in the nation won't be easy to overcome.

Notable Returning Players: The Golden Bears return plenty of skill highlighted by athletic wings Jabari Bird and Tyrone Wallace. Wallace averaged 11.3 points per game and also had the most steals on the team. But almost 41 percent of his shots were from beyond the arc last season and he only hit 32 percent of them whereas he shot 61.9 percent at the rim. Bird had an up-and-down freshman year marred by injury and inconsistency. He missed the first three games of conference play and couldn't put together a string of great performances until the end of the season when he posted three straight double-digit scoring games in the NIT.

David Kravish and Jordan Mathews round out the quartet of notable returning players for Cal. Kravish is the team's leading returning scorer, but he's the only experienced big man on the roster which could be problematic for Cal. Mathews is another formidable guard that should excel in his second year alongside Bird and Wallace. He averaged 8.5 points per game and although he only averaged 19.1 minutes per game, he had the lowest turnover rate on the team. And there's also sophomore guard Sam Singer competing for the point-guard spot. Singer didn't see much action because of Justin Cobbs, but the 6-foot-3 guard had the second best assist rate on the team and would provide a change of pace from the more scoring-oriented Wallace and Mathews.

Key Newcomers: As mentioned above, the front court could be a problem for Cal. Kameron Rooks is likely to miss the year with a torn ACL and Christian Behrens has yet to put together consistent minutes. That leaves freshman Kingsley Okoroh and transfer Dwight Tarwater as the only other big men on the roster. Okoroh is 7-foot-1 and still needs to improve, but he is one of Martin's recruits and seems to be a hard-worker. Tarwater transferred from Cornell and averaged 7.1 points and 5.5 rebounds last season, but at 6-foot-6 and 230 lbs., will have to adjust to the size of the Pac-12.

Notable Non-Conference Games: Cal plays Syracuse and either Iowa or Texas in the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden and it doesn't get much easier after that. The Golden Bears will travel to Fresno St. and then host Wyoming, a pair of underrated Mountain West teams. And Cuonzo Martin's team wraps up non-conference play at home against Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin.

Conference Stretch to Look at: Cal will host UCLA, and then travel to play Colorado, Utah and Stanford in the middle of February. All four of these teams will be in the middle of the race in a cluttered Pac-12 and because the Golden Bears only play Utah and Colorado once, this stretch will be crucial.

Best-Case: Cuonzo Martin gets Cal to become one of the better defensive teams in the conference and Jabari Bird has a breakout season and declares for the draft. Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Matthews combine to average over 25 points per game and Cal snatches one of the last four spots in the NCAA Tournament.

Worst-Case: Jabari Bird and Tyrone Wallace both have inconsistent seasons and the lack of front court talent gives Cal matchup problems in the Pac-12. Despite a shaky first year, Cuonzo Martin's team shows signs of promise and earns a spot in the NIT.

Projected Finish: 6th