BERKELEY — Easy pickings? Not in this conference, new California Coach Ben Braun says quietly, quickly and deadly serious, not in this season.
Not Oregon State, the doormat of the last few Pacific 10 seasons, which rose up to almost knock off Texas earlier this season; not Oregon, which won its first nine games for the first time in two decades; not Washington's towering front line, Washington State's clutch players and USC's developing mix of talent.
Especially, and perhaps most strikingly, not Cal, which was expected to be devastated by mass off-season departures.
No Pac-10 gimme games, Braun says, not this season.
"I guess we were supposed to be one of those teams," Braun said with a touch of impish sarcasm as he sat in his office last week, "I don't know."
In an early season performance that has symbolized the conference's across-the-board improvement, the newly organized and hustling Bears have traveled to Maui and twice to the East Coast, played a series of monster opponents, and emerged 9-2 entering their conference opener tonight at Arizona.
"I think it's the most dangerous league since I've been here, from top to bottom," said UCLA interim Coach Steve Lavin, who was Jim Harrick's assistant for five years. "It doesn't have the marquee names that it had a couple years ago, the Jason Kidds-Lamond Murrays at Cal, Murray, MacLean and O'Bannon here, Brent Barry, Harold Miner. . . .
"But you've got a parity from top to bottom of just solid quality that you didn't have before. This reminds me more of what the Big Ten was like when I was there [as an assistant at Purdue in the mid-'80s]."
For instance, Cal's only two losses are to Kansas (11-0) and Maryland (11-1), and the Bears have registered victories over Iowa (9-3), Illinois (10-2) and Penn State (7-2).
In a transition season--Braun was hired on the fly on Sept. 15--in which a .500 season would have been excusable, suddenly, the Bears are looking at an NCAA berth if they can finish in the top half of the league.
All this without last season's freshman and player of the year, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who bolted to the NBA, former coach Todd Bozeman, who resigned late last summer amid the beginnings of an NCAA investigation into potential recruiting violations, and Jelani Gardner and Tremaine Fowlkes, two major talents who transferred to other schools.
"We lost some significant go-to people," said the intense, 42-year-old Braun, who led Eastern Michigan to a 25-6 record and a first-round NCAA victory over Duke last season. "I'd be lying if I said we don't miss having a player of that caliber.
"But the thing, though, is it now gives some of our other players an opportunity that they didn't have last year, and I think so far they've taken advantage of it."
Multiplication by subtraction? During Bozeman's high-wire Cal tenure, the Bears were usually loaded with talent, but were perennial underachievers squabbling over playing time and shot selection.
At his usual breakneck pace, Braun has eliminated Bozeman's haphazard substitution patterns and freelance offensive philosophies and handed clearly defined roles to his non-lottery leftovers.
Ed Gray is the bombardier scoring threat (23 points a game, leading the conference) and actually has been seen playing defense this season; Prentice McGruder and Randy Duck distribute the ball; and unheralded big men Michael Stewart, Sean Marks and Alfred Grigsby work on the offensive post, rebound and block shots.
Cal, which allowed Pac-10 opponents to shoot 45.1% from the field last season, is holding opponents to 37.6% this season, best in the conference.
"Ben Braun has been able to come in and give them a sense of purpose. They've drawn together, and they're defending," Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery said.
"I've said from the get-go that people are making too big of a deal of what they lost instead of focusing on what they had coming back."
The rest of the conference, by alphabetical order:
Surprise! The Wildcats are playing without last season's leading scorer, Miles Simon, because of academic problems (he could be back Jan. 10 or possibly not at all), and don't have any bangers inside. But Coach Lute Olson has ninth-ranked Arizona rolling along at 7-2 (both defeats were on the road, to New Mexico and Michigan) with uptempo athleticism and red-hot shooting.
Key figures: In place of Simon, small forward Michael Dickerson started off blazing (22.6 points a game), and freshman point guard Mike Bibby has been as brilliant as advertised. Add in Jason Terry, and Arizona has three players among the conference's top 10 steal-makers.
Best-case scenario: Blow through the conference, get a No. 1 or 2 regional seeding for the tournament, then hope Bibby is ready to drag the team to glory.