Cal Preview: All Hail The Newcomers

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 4th, 2015

In the next three weeks leading up to season tipoff, the Pac-12 microsite will be evaluating each of the league’s 12 teams. Today, we head to Berkeley.

California Golden Bears

Cuonzo Martin’s first season as the head coach at Cal was a rebuilding year for a team that had lost senior leaders Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon, and also dealt with injuries to star sophomore Jabari Bird on its way to an 18-15 season (7-11 Pac-12). Things are looking way up for the Golden Bears this season, however, primarily because Martin managed to convince two of the very best high school players in the country to matriculate at Berkeley this season. These newcomers may not be around for more than a season, but for at least this season, Cal will be loaded with elite athletes and are a trendy sleeper pick to win a conference with no clear favorite. With an influx of talent the likes of which Cal basketball hasn’t seen in over two decades, anything less than an NCAA Tournament appearance this season will be considered a severe disappointment.

Cuonzo Martin Begins Year 2 at Cal With a Loaded Roster

Cuonzo Martin Begins Year 2 at Cal With a Loaded Roster

Strengths: Only Arizona and UCLA in this conference can compete with the athleticism that Cal will be able to put on the floor. Returning wings Jabari Bird and Tyrone Wallace are legitimate two-way players who can fill a box score in a variety of ways, and their attacks on the rim should open things up for sharpshooter Jordan Mathews (44.3 percent from three last season). Georgetown transfer Stephen Domingo is a rangy forward who can shoot and defend multiple positions as well. But the real reason why the Bears will be a superior athletic team against nearly every team they play is because true freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb are one-of-a-kind type talents who have certain NBA futures. At 6’11” and 220 pounds, Rabb has plenty of shooting range, a variety of moves in the post and he runs the floor extremely well for a player his size. At 6’7″ and 225 pounds, Brown is the quintessential bull in a china shop and might very well be the Pac-12 Player of the Year before the season is over. His brute size and strength make him nearly impossible to keep away from the rim and he will be a human wrecking ball in transition. Finding the right combination of playing time for all of these talented athletes will be an interesting juggling act for Martin, but it is hard to view that as a problem. If all goes according to plan, the Bears’ offense will improve and the team become downright frightening defensively; but at the very least, the additions of Brown and Rabb will improve the team’s offensive rebounding and ability to get to the free throw line, two of the squad’s most glaring weaknesses last season.

Weaknesses: Remember those six players we mentioned in the previous section? The thing is that those are really the only players on this roster worth spending any real time discussing. The pedigree and expected production from the depth behind the six aforementioned players is very slim, and although reports about Domingo’s game have been good, he has yet to prove himself in games that matter. Guys like Brandon Chauca and Sam Singer and Roger Moute a Bidias and Kingsley Okoroh all were pressed into meaningful minutes last season but they wouldn’t be contributors on a really good team. Kameron Rooks played a lot as a freshman but he missed all of last season to a torn ACL and so a big impact seems doubtful. The only downside to having so many talented wings is that finding a comfortable rotation could be difficult. The Bears don’t have a true point guard and really have four wing players (Mathews, Bird, Brown and Wallace) who deserve to start. Wallace will likely handle most of the point guard duties and is a willing passer (26.0 percent assist rate), but no one is going to mistake him for a pass-first floor general. As for the optimal lineup, Wallace and Brown are capable rebounders so Martin will likely play his four best wings with Rabb at the center position. But while the big freshman has the size to play inside, asking him to guard players like Kaleb Tarczewski and Tony Parker around the league seems unwise. The problem is that neither Rooks nor Okoroh has the track record to inspire a lot of confidence inside either. Lineup management will be something to watch in Berkeley this season.

Non-Conference Tests: Aside from a showdown with San Diego State and the winner of the West Virginia/Richmond game at the Las Vegas Invitational and a near-Christmas marquee matchup against Virginia, the Bears play a borderline criminal non-conference schedule. It is possible that UC Santa Barbara and St. Mary’s will put up a worthwhile fight, but the Bears will still be a heavy favorite to win both of those games. KenPom considers the game against San Diego State a toss-up, but the game that should be the real measuring stick for Cal’s fortunes this season will be a December 22 trip to Charlottesville to face off against a Virginia team with Final Four aspirations. The game will be nationally televised and with good reason. The Cavaliers return most of the contributors from a team that won 30 games and was in contention for a #1 seed all season long. The Bears will arguably have more star power and future NBA talent on the roster, but that’s not an unusual situation given what Tony Bennett has built at Virginia. The Cavaliers should be heavy favorites at home, but a strong showing by the Bears could make a difference come tournament time. The danger would be if the young Bears get their doors blown off — national perception could take a heavy hit.

Toughest Conference Stretch: The Bears open and close their conference schedule with tough situations. After getting Colorado at home to tip off conference play, the Bears will play Utah at home just two days later before playing their next three games on the road against Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford. If they don’t come prepared to start the conference slate, they could find themselves behind the eight-ball in the league standings very early. The last four games of the conference schedule are arguably tougher, though, as the Bears will welcome UCLA and USC to Haas Pavilion at the end of February before finishing off the season on the road against the two Arizona teams. Those games may hold special significance for a team that is likely to find itself in the bubble conversation at the end of the season.

Jaylen Brown is already the best recruit in the history of Cal basketball (Photo: Cal Athletics)

Biggest StoryCal has had its fair share of successful NBA alumni but only one other player in the history of the program (Jason Kidd) has come in with as much hype and expectations as Brown and Rabb currently have. By securing the commitments of those two talents, Martin has essentially forced his team into national conversation by virtue of the fact that his lineup now includes four potential NBA players. Rabb is a local product who should not be overlooked but Brown is the real story here. His body and his skill set — aside from an iffy jumper — are NBA ready. But what makes him such an intriguing story is that he is originally from Newman, Georgia, and absolutely nobody expected him to sign with the Golden Bears. Martin not only convinced Brown to come for an unofficial visit where he had to pay his own way, but he also outdueled the likes of John Calipari and Roy Williams to land his services. Brown is quite possibly already the best player in the conference, but if you are looking for the No. 1 reason why university officials say ticket sales have jumped, it’s because people will always pay to see elite talents like him in action.

If Everything Goes Right… Brown and Rabb live up to the hype and compete with each other for national Freshman of the Year honors and Pac-12 Player of the Year honors. Domingo proves he has adjusted to the college game and emerges as a reliable shooter and excellent defender. Wallace and Bird stay healthy and improve their shot selection. Mathews manages to capably run the offense without seeing a corresponding dropoff in his offensive efficiency. Everyone is a big happy family and shares the ball willingly. This team has the type of talent to win the conference but it also has a thin roster and overcrowding at the wing positions that could blow up in its face.

If Nothing Goes Right… If Cal can’t find a way to make all of its ball-dominant wing players happy, a mutiny or at least grumblings could bubble up. The Bears’ relative lack of size will likely not hurt much against their non-conference foes, but they could be over their heads against teams with athletic big men like Oregon, UCLA and Arizona. Also, if Wallace can’t make the full-time transition to point guard and ensure everyone gets their share of the ball, the offense could sputter. Without actually jinxing anyone, let’s just say that health will also be integral to the Bears’ success this season. If nothing goes right, the Bears will still likely be better than last season, but they still might not make the NCAA Tournament.

Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG Tyrone Wallace (Sr, 6’5” 200 lbs, 17.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 3.96 APG)
  • SG Jordan Mathews (Jr, 6’3”, 205 lbs, 13.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 44.3 3PT%, 78.6 FT%)
  • SF Jaylen Brown (Fr, 6’7” 225 lbs)
  • PF Ivan Rabb (Fr, 6’11’’ 220 lbs) 6’6” 200 lbs, 10.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 13.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG)
  • Kameron Rooks (R-So,  7’0”, 260 lbs, played minimally as a freshman in 2013-14)

Wallace is the point guard by default because Mathews is much better suited off the ball given his shooting ability. Brown’s body, and to some extent his game, draw easy comparisons to Stanley Johnson, another man-sized small forward who did alright for himself in his one year of Pac-12 ball. The guess here is that Martin starts the season with Rooks in the starting lineup as a more traditional look, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Bird plays more minutes than Rooks on a consistent basis.

Key Reserves

  • SF Jabari Bird (Jr, 6’6” 200 lbs, 10.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 36.9 3PT%, 76.5 FT%)
  • Kingsley Okoroh (So, 7’1” 254 lbs, 2.0 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 6.9 Blk%)
  • SF Stephen Domingo (Jr, 6’7” 215 lbs, played minimally as a freshman and sophomore for Georgetown)
  • PF Roger Moute a Bidias (Jr, 6’6”, 205 lbs, 1.6 PPG, 1.4 RPG,)
  • PG Brandon Chauca (So, 5’9” 160 lbs, 2.4 PPG, 38.7 3PT%)

Bird counts as a starter for all intents and purposes. There have been rave reports from the Cal coaching staff about Domingo’s defense this offseason, and if he can shoot from distance too, that would be a huge boon for the team’s offense. Okoroh will play because he is a big body and the team’s doesn’t have many other options. Moute a Bidias is an intriguing athlete and defender but he will struggle to find the court this season. Chauca is a defensive liability and not exactly a true point guard but he can shoot it from deep and has some quickness to make an impact.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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