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Today’s U Top 25 Countdown: No. 12 Cal Golden Bears

Photo: Icon Sportswire

No team in the West has generated as much intrigue ahead of the 2015-’16 college basketball season as the Cal Golden Bears.

A middle-of-the-road bunch in head coach Cuonzo Martin’s first season, Year 2 brings an influx of talent from a recruiting bonanza to join a solid, veteran corps.

Martin signed the nation’s seventh-ranked recruiting class, headlined by 5-star prospects Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown. The blue-chip duo is expected to play an immediate role on a roster that returns the core of its 2014-’15 team.

Statistically, Tyrone Wallace ranked as one of the nation’s best all-around players a season ago at 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4 assists per game. Fellow returners Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird both averaged double-figures, and both are potentially explosive playmakers on the perimeter.

There’s also plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Golden Bears. While expectations are sky-high, Cal is still a team that finished eighth in the Pac-12 a season ago, and lost the majority of its high-profile games by double-digits. Cal is now banking on newcomers without collegiate experience to bridge the gap between mediocrity and championship aspirations.

Youth carried Duke to a national championship last season, with center Jahlil Okafor and swing man Justise Winslow playing starring roles much of the campaign, and guard Tyus Jones pacing the Blue Devils throughout the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky’s John Calipari has staked his reputation on building teams around talented youngsters — and what a reputation it is.

But Duke and Kentucky are outliers in every sense. Matching their formula isn’t as simple as bring in young talent and win. The pressure is on Martin to make it work in Berkeley.

Key Departures: David Kravish (forward/center)

Eligibility lapses didn’t hurt Cal too hard. David Kravish, a lengthy post presence, leaves the biggest void. Kravish was Cal’s second-leading rebounder at 7 per game, blocked 1.5 shots per and averaged better than 11 points.

His departure allows for Rabb, one of the celebrated freshman, to slide right into the lineup, however.

Key Additions: Jaylen Brown (forward); Roman Davis (forward); Stephen Domingo (guard); Ivan Rabb (forward)

Make no mistake: While Cal’s veteran corps is among the Pac-12’s most impressive, Martin signing both Brown and Rabb is the real reason folks are so high on the Golden Bears this season.

Brown is a 6-foot-7 small forward with ridiculous athleticism and unreal leaping ability. He ranked No. 4 nationally in the ESPN100, and with good reason. He led Wheeler High School in Alpharetta, Georgia — the same school that produced Cal great Shareef Abdur-Rahim — to a 30-3 record.

Brown’s ceiling is comparable to that of Andrew Wiggins.

Rabb is Cal’s other marquee signee, a local prospect who spurned Pac-12 rival Arizona to stay in the Bay Area.

Rabb was a double-double machine for prep powerhouse Bishop O’Dowd, and likely fills Kravish’s spot in the starting lineup. He’ll likely have to adapt a consistent mid-range jumper to be a true difference-maker, however. His lean frame isn’t yet developed for banging on the low block with big men like Kaleb Tarczewski of Arizona or Tony Parker of UCLA.

Three-star Los Angeles signee Roman Davis rounds out Cal’s signing class, but the Golden Bears also add depth with guard Stephen Domingo gaining eligibility. Domingo sat out 2014-’15 after transferring in from Georgetown.

Schedule Analysis

Cal eases into its 2015-’16 slate before visiting Las Vegas Thanksgiving weekend, where it will face San Diego State and either West Virginia or Richmond. As it so often does, Sin City should reveal character.

Are the Golden Bears truly title contenders, or will they fall flat against NCAA Tournament competition as they did a season ago?

Highlighting the rest of the nonconference schedule are games against nearby Saint Mary’s, then Christmas book-ending matchups with Virginia and Davidson.

The Dec. 22 trek to Charlottesville is especially intriguing. Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett made Washington State a Pac-12 title contender in the late 2000s, and his brand of slow-down basketball runs polar opposite to the wide-open style Cal favors.

Should Cal win the Pac-12, it will have earned it by drawing three of the other four teams likely to contend for the conference title twice. The Golden Bears see each of Arizona, Oregon and Utah in home-and-home contests, missing the two-for against only UCLA.

Cal is spared the Los Angeles road swing, instead drawing UCLA and USC at home in the regular season’s penultimate series.

Final Analysis

Cal’s 2015-’16 season will reveal much about Martin’s progress as a head coach. He proved himself a championship-caliber recruiter in the offseason, adding the kind of players who would have eluded the Golden Bears in years past.

But in four seasons at Tennessee and Cal, Martin’s never coached a team to fewer than 13 losses. His final Vol squad, in 2013-’14, boasted talent comparable to this year’s Golden Bears. A similar finish with 12 regular-season losses is unacceptable, given Cal’s preseason expectations.

The formula isn’t as simple as plugging in Rabb and Brown and winning the Pac-12. Nonconference games against San Diego State and Virginia should be telling barometers of the progress Cal made with the newcomers, as both the Aztecs and Cavaliers play grinding, defensive styles that vexed the Golden Bears a season ago.

Last year, Cal ranked No. 186 in adjusted offense, per KenPom.com.

In that same vein, Cal must find an answer in the low post. The Golden Bears shoot from outside well enough, connecting on 36 percent of their 3-point attempts as a team. However, last season’s Golden Bears finished with a plus-0.9 per game rebounding margin, but were dominated on the glass by NCAA Tournament-caliber competition.

This season’s lineup is heavy on perimeter talent, but the loss of Kravish poses questions — specifically, can Rabb establish himself on the low block? If Rabb proves to be more of a stretch four, Cal will be left playing five-out sets regularly.

Should Martin get this roster to jell and find answers for the possible deficiencies, however, Cal is a very real contender to the Pac-12 championship.

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