If anyone understands the value of physical and mental toughness in sports, then ’Zo knows. Those attributes helped get Cal coach Cuonzo Martin to the NBA, even if only for a brief period.
As talented as his Golden Bears may be — and some believe they’re as skilled as any team at the school in the shot-clock era — Martin also knows they cannot win on dazzle alone. They’ll have to combine flash and dash with ground and pound, and he has left no doubt which comes first.
“I want to be the best defensive team in the country,” Martin said in no uncertain terms.
That will be no small challenge. A year ago, the Bears ranked 141st in the country in opponents 3-point percentage (.335), 155th in opponents field goal percentage (.426) and 191st in points allowed (67.3).
They should be able to score the ball consistently, as highly touted freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb give them two options with NBA lottery potential.
“Because you can score 90 points, you can score 80, you can score 70, you can score 60, depending how the other team’s shots are falling. But you always have to consume yourself with defending, rebounding and playing hard because that’s what you can control,” Martin said. “You can’t control how many shots you get. So my job is to focus on defense.”
If size, length and balance mean anything, then the Bears have what it takes physically to make the transformation.
In the 6-foot-11 Rabb, 7-foot-1 Kingsley Okoroh and 7-foot Kameron Rooks, the team has multiple rim protectors, something lacking a year ago. The 6-7 Brown, 6-6 Jabari Bird and 6-7 Stephen Domingo offer flexibility. And 6-3 Jordan Mathews, 6-4 Sam Singer and 6-5 Tyrone Wallace can be mixed and matched in the backcourt.
“We’re probably more athletic this year, so we have a lot of guys who are able to do more, guys who maybe can guard positions, get in the passing lanes, steals, blocked shots,” Wallace said.
At least in theory, that will allow the Bears to apply half-court and full-court pressure more often and effectively.
The Bears averaged barely four steals per game last season.
“We certainly have great guys doing off the bench,” Wallace said. “That’s something that coach wants to work on a little bit … to get up and pressure teams and force them to take time off the shot clock. That’s something that I can definitely can see us doing.”
The many options will allow Martin and his staff to be more creative in their schemes.
When the Bears visited Australia on a recent exhibition tour, for instance, Martin experimented without a center late in games. One lineup featured Wallace at point guard, Bird, Brown and Mathews at the wings and Rabb in the middle.
“The thing I’ve been most impressed with is our competitive spirit,” Martin said. “When you have a competitive nature across the board, it helps you in hostile environments. When you get down in games, hit adversity, you have a level of toughness. Toughness and competitive spirit have grown in our program and helped us jell as a team and make progress.”