Big Win For Cal, But More Significant Test Pending

Posted by AMurawa on November 21st, 2014

Midway through the second half of California’s 14–point win over Syracuse (#25 in the RTC preseason poll) at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, both Dick Vitale and John Saunders expressed surprise that the Golden Bears were picked seventh in the Pac-12 — astonished that there could be six teams in the conference better than them. And if you watched the game, you probably understood that surprise, because Cal looked great. They shot a 54.5 percent eFG against the vaunted Syracuse zone, kept the Orange’s athletes out of transition (for the most part), and really had a handle on the game from the closing moments of the first half (a late 12-0 run in that half featured four Cal threes in five possessions). Sophomore Jabari Bird had his national coming-out party with 16 points on four threes, and his more under-the-radar classmate Jordan Mathews wound up with 22 relatively quiet points. Up and down the rest of the roster, Cuonzo Martin’s players made the type of plays that they’ll be expected to make all season long. So, all that optimism that Golden Bears fans had to be feeling throughout that not-all-that-stressful second half is completely warranted and Cal should start looking into a nice brand of scissors for all that net-cutting they’re going to be doing at the end of the year, right? Well, slow your roll for just one minute.

Jabari Bird and The Cal Bears Looked Great In Handling Syracuse (Ben Margot, AP Photo)

Jabari Bird and The Cal Bears Looked Great In Handling Syracuse (Ben Margot, AP Photo)

First, note that we’re not about to discount what the Golden Bears did last night at all. They beat Syracuse on a floor that was anything but neutral, and they did it in convincing fashion. They’ve got a star or two on the wing in Bird and Mathews. Tyrone Wallace is settling in at the point and has looked good enough there. And if he needs a hand, Martin’s best bench player at this junction is sophomore point Sam Singer who, by the way, handed out eight assists in a solid night of action. There’s senior center David Kravish, who contributed 12 points, 10 boards, three blocks, five assists and even a three against that Syracuse front line which, even if you don’t recognize any of the names off the top of your head, is an intimidating opponent. They looked really good, validating the initial opinion that most people who watched any of the Golden Bears’ first couple games of the season came away with.

But let’s be real here for a second. That Syracuse team? Yeah, that is not your father’s ‘Cuse. That’s not even your older brother’s Orange squad. Heck, that’s probably not even your minutes-older twin’s typical Syracuse team. Jim Boeheim has built his program on the back of a disruptive, pressuring 2-3 zone with long athletes all over the place. And while, yes, there are plenty of athletes on this team, that is by no means a vintage Boeheim zone. So scoring slightly better than a point per possession over the course of the game against that defense is not exactly something to write home about. Sure, it took the Golden Bears the better part of the first half to get comfortable against it, but let’s not read too too much into their offensive performance. The fact is that this was a very good match-up for the Golden Bears, a team loaded with perimeter shooters, against a team that is not yet very good at perimeter defense. Once their jumpers started falling late in the first half, the Orange’s fate was sealed.

Syracuse May Be The Big Name, But Texas Will Be A Bigger Test For Cuonzo Martin's Team (

Syracuse May Be The Big Name, But Texas Will Be A Bigger Test For Cuonzo Martin’s Team (

Cal’s performance on the defensive end, though, is a little more noteworthy, as they held Syracuse to 0.82 points per possession by forcing the Orange into taking jumpers. But again, that is a team with a raw freshman point guard, an off-guard who is little more than a catch-and-shoot guy, a handful of unpolished long athletes and, well, gotta give a special mention to freshman forward Chris McCullough who looks like he has the potential to be special. But it isn’t like the Golden Bears just held down Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara out there.

Still, we came here not to bury the Bears for a mighty impressive win in enemy territory, but to throw down the gauntlet. You see, what Cal did on Thursday night was what that Golden Bears were supposed to do. They beat a team that they’re better than at this point, a team that they match up very well against. And they beat them soundly. You can’t help but be impressed by their effort. But if Martin really wants to impress the college basketball world, go out and fight Texas down to the wire tonight. Because you know what? The Longhorns are not a team that the Bears match up all that well with. Cal’s strength is its wide variety of athletic difference-makers on the wing and in the backcourt, while its clear weakness is depth and size along the front line. Well, you know what? Texas is anything but weak along their front line; just ask Cameron Ridley and Myles Turner and Prince Ibeh and Jonathan Holmes. In the backcourt, the Longhorns have guys like Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland (not to mention glue guy Javan Felix) who are every bit as effective as Bird and Mathews. Those two are going to have to use their size and athleticism to their advantage on both ends of the court and are going to have to find a way to match up with, for instance, the 6’8” Holmes, whom one of them will likely be forced to defend.

One last key to keep an eye on is the same question we asked about the Golden Bears before the season began: What’s up at the point? The answer was clear when Cal was playing overmatched Alcorn State and Kennesaw State, games where Wallace was in command with a nice 11-to-6 assist-to-turnover ratio and shot the ball at a 62.5 percent eFG clip. But against Syracuse, he was forced into six turnovers, took badout of rhythm shots from behind the three-point line, and was clearly the second-best point guard on the Cal roster (to Singer). Martin seems convinced — and there is no reason to doubt him — that for the Golden Bears to live up to their potential this season, Wallace has to be the team’s primary point guard. Between now and Pac-12 play, Wallace needs to prove that he deserves that level of trust. And after a middling grade in Thursday’s first big early exam, he needs to respond with a strong showing on Friday night’s encore.

Back to the original point that caused Vitale and Saunders such consternation: Can there really be six teams in the Pac-12 better that Cal? Yes, there can. California has looked very good, but this is still early in the year, they’re not banged up yet, and they’ve had some favorable match-ups. It is far too early for any grand proclamations one way or the other (other than USC is terrible; it’s never too early for that proclamation), but with all of the teams above Cal in that preseason poll having looked sparklingly good in their own rights, the Golden Bears still have some work to do to prove their long-term merits. Still, damn good win though, Cal.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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