From size to athleticism to starpower, this Cal basketball team just about had it all, the hype mongers told us before the first jump ball.
In Jaylen Brown and Oakland phenom Ivan Rabb, coach Cuonzo Martin and his staff had reeled in two potential NBA lottery picks. They joined senior point guard Tyrone Wallace, who had similar career plans. Along with three talented juniors, they formed the nucleus of the most athletically gifted team in school history. The Bears were ranked 14th in the country at the start of the season, and for the first time in decades, Berkeley had dreams of the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.
Weeks later, the great expectations have become more of a burden than a joy. Last month, Cal crapped out in Las Vegas, where it lost two games to unranked opponents and dropped out of the top 25, and it hasn’t been quite the same since then. Now, Martin’s team has the look of one that has an enormous weight on its shoulders.
“I feel we have good chemistry,” said Jabari Bird, the junior swingman. “We’ve just go to stop thinking so much out there. Even myself, I’ve just got to play with more freedom, you know? There’s no need to stress out there. Just play basketball.”
As gifted as the Bears are individually, it may be unrealistic to think so many new pieces can come together this early in the season.
“That has a lot to do with it,” Martin said. “I won’t say [we’re] young, but we’re a new team from the standpoint of playing together. Obviously, we have two talented freshman. [Kameron] Rooks didn’t play last year. [Stephen] Domingo didn’t play last year. Tyrone [Wallace] and Jordan [Mathews] have played a lot of minutes, and Jabari when he’s not injured. Now it’s just trying to get all that to gel together, to be able to play well together, to execute offensively together and defensively together.”
Fairly indicative of the Cal season was its 74-62 victory over game-but-overmatched Incarnate Word earlier this week. The Bears tip-toed through the first 20 minutes, turned the ball over seven times and bricked 10 of 14 3-point attempts. A different team showed up in the second half, when the home team played to its size advantage and shot 63 percent in the field, the continuation of a maddening trend.
“To look up and be tied at halftime, it is frustrating,” Bird said. “We’re better than that. We’ve just got to show it.”
Indeed, such lofty expectations have left Cal with an identity crisis. Do the Bears want to be the dunk show that many outsiders expect? Should they be more about substance than style? Can they be both? Rather than make the right play, some players seem compelled to attempt the sensational one, not all that unusual for a predominantly young group with this much raw talent. Yet at other times, they’re too uptight to make any play at all.
Cal can take a large step forward when it faces unbeaten St. Mary’s at home on Saturday and visits 10th-ranked Virginia on Tuesday.
“We’ve got so many talented guys on the court at all times, so there’s no reason to be struggling.” Bird said. “We should be out on the break, getting good leads and blowing teams out, but we’re not. We just got to find a way to get back to that.”
Until then, Cal has the look of a flawed team that lacks floor leaders and consistent shot-makers at one end, and the energy and know-how to play effective man-to-man defense at the other. Cal haven’t shot the ball particularly well — 32 percent on 3-pointers and 66 percent at the free throw line — and that doesn’t bode well come tournament time. Among regulars, only Mathews and Wallace have converted more than one-third of their shots from beyond the arc. The lack of distance shooters invite opponents to drop back in coverage, and the results have been mostly favorable.
“Against man-to-man [defense], our guys are fine, but they get a little stagnant against the zone, especially when the shots don’t fall,” Martin said. “Against the zone, you have to be aggressive. You’ve got to attack. It’s not necessarily just 3s. It’s dribble-penetrations, it’s pass fakes, it’s flashes, it’s post-ups — you can get all those against a zone, but you’ve got to be aggressive.”
Meanwhile, the player whom many believe should be a focal point of the attack has been a bystander too often. That would be the 18-year-old-Rabb, a monster on the offensive glass and selfless passer who still has much to learn about post play. The freshman has converts two-thirds of his field goal tries but averages fewer than 12 shots per 40 minutes.
“I definitely feel that I’m capable of doing more on offense, but it’s not because guys aren’t looking for me. It’s because of myself,” Rabb said. “Sometimes I pass up easy shots when they tell me to be aggressive. At the end of the day, I have to do things to get baskets. [Teammates] can only do so much for me. I’ve got to help myself like I do for them.”
Regardless of its early struggles, this Cal team will be judged not by how it starts the season but how it finishes it. The Bears have three weeks to find themselves before the start of the Pac-12 season.
Said Wallace, another NBA hopeful, “This is my last year, so I want to go out with a great year and do well and be successful. All the other guys want to do the same, too. We all feel this could be a special year, but it comes down to how hard we’re willing to work for it.”