BERKELEY — Now that the Pacific 10 basketball season is under way, most conference coaches agree that Washington and Oregon State are the teams to beat.
But they also hedge a bit, saying: "Don't forget about California."
This is new-found respect for a school that hasn't won a conference championship since the glory day of Pete Newell in the late '50s and early '60s.
The confident Golden Bears, who will play USC tonight at Harmon Gym, in no way resemble the teams that struggled under Dick Kuchen for seven years and didn't finish any higher than sixth in the conference race.
Lou Campanelli, the former, successful coach at small James Madison University in Virginia, has apparently revived a long slumbering program.
Cal is 11-4 overall and 3-2 in the conference, and USC Coach Stan Morrison says the Bears are a big man away from being a top 20 team.
"The atmosphere in Harmon Gym is different," said Morrison, who played on Cal's national championship team in 1959. "There is an air of expectation there, an imaginative air of marketing from the way the team is presented to the Straw Hat band. The stamp of Lou Campanelli is all over. He's not a guy who leaves details to chance. The way his team is playing is a reflection of his command of the program."
The Pac-10 has had an influx of new coaches in recent years. Some, such as Lute Olson at Arizona, have made an immediate impact. Others, such as Bob Weinhauer at Arizona State and Kuchen, couldn't win consistently and were fired.
Campanelli, 46, who is described by his associates as an intense, fiery coach, said he didn't take the Cal job just to become a mediocre nonentity.
"People are genuinely excited there and defense is the root of that excitement," Morrison said. "The team is playing with a lot of imagination, sometimes pressuring you out of a half-court 1-3-1 trap, and man-to-man defense is the heart and soul of their defense, but they do play some 2-3 zone."
The Bears are allowing an average of only 61.4 points a game while taking care of the ball themselves. They are averaging only 13 turnovers.
Cal is an experienced team, yet there isn't a senior in a starting lineup of four juniors and a sophomore. Campanelli benefited from the return of 6-9 center Dave Butler, who was inactive last year because of stress fractures in both knees.
"Butler and 6-8 Leonard Taylor are big forward types, who can score inside and outside at 15 to 17 feet," Morrison said. "I don't know anyone in the league who posts up better than Taylor.
"Cal also has one of the quickest backcourt combinations in the conference in Kevin Johnson and Chris Washington. I think Johnson is a big-time star in our conference. NBA guys say his speed with the ball is unmatched in the country right now at the collegiate level. He can penetrate and get his shot off as well as anyone I've seen in the last 20 years.
"And I like the way Jeff Huling has filled in at the small forward position. Cal also has excellent depth coming off the bench led by Michael Taylor, a fine shooter and zone buster.
"I believe that Cal is one of the contenders for the conference title and has an interesting blend of inside and outside shooting and a power game. They're tough to prepare for because they do a lot of things."
Johnson is particularly effective. He is averaging 19.4 points in conference games and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 100 to 45.
Campanelli, who fashioned upsets over nationally ranked teams while at James Madison, is the fifth Cal coach since Newell retired. He may stay around for a while.
Trojan Notes Tonight's game will begin at 7:30. . . . USC, 8-7 overall and 3-3 in the conference, will play Arkansas in a nationally televised game (Channel 2, noon) Saturday in Fayetteville, Ark. . . . USC will be at a size disadvantage up front against Cal if Stan Morrison goes with 6-6 Derrick Dowell, 6-7 Tom Lewis and 6-7 Hank Gathers. "I'm not sure what my starting lineup will be, but it won't be a radical change," he said. It's likely, though, that 6-9 Rod Keller will get ample playing time in an effort to offset Dave Butler and Leonard Taylor, who was the Pac-10 rookie of the year in 1985.