We Need to Talk About California

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 11th, 2015

In recent days, I’ve heard knowledgeable college basketball folks refer to California as both “inconsistent” and “disappointing.” Let’s jump right in and say that they’re being far too kind. So far, this California team, compared with its talent level and their expectations, has been outright bad. They were ranked in nearly everyone’s Top 25 prior to the season, with more than a few supporters slotting the Bears as a top 10 team and mentioning them in the same breath as the words “Final Four.” And looking up and down their roster, it is easy to see why. Pop over to DraftExpress right now and you’ll find freshman forward Jaylen Brown sitting as the projected #6 pick in next year’s NBA Draft. Point guard Tyrone Wallace is projected as a second round pick. And freshman center Ivan Rabb is listed as the #15 pick in the 2017 draft. Throw in very good college guards Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews and the Golden Bears are loaded down with position-appropriate talent across the entire lineup.

So Far, Jaylen Brown And The Bears Have Been Bad (USA Today)

So Far, Jaylen Brown And The Bears Have Been Bad (USA Today)

Now, contrast that load of talent with what this team has actually done to this point. They’ve played two games all year against teams ranked in the top 100 by KenPom.com. Both of those game came over Thanksgiving weekend in Las Vegas. In the first, they Bears looked decent in the first half against San Diego State, before getting outscored 44-22 (1.26 PPP to 0.63) in the second half by an Aztec team who has really, really struggled to score against anybody all season long. The Bears followed that up by allowing a pretty dang good offensive team in Richmond to score 94 points against them, to the tune of a 1.31 PPP average. From there, the Bears haven’t taken a loss in the record books, but they sure haven’t been winning. They were taken to overtime by a Wyoming team still trying to find itself after replacing four of five starters from last year. In that game, Cowboys senior guard Josh Adams outplayed all of Cal’s future pros, and by a wide margin. California followed that game up by hosting Incarnate Word, a team without a win against a Division I team yet this season. At the half, those teams were tied. With eight minutes left, Incarnate Word was within five points.

So, all of those gruesome details are really just to point out the depths to which this California team, with all that talent and all the hopes and buzz surrounding this program, has underachieved thus far this season. Quotes from following the Incarnate Word game show that these guys know that they’re not living up to their abilities and aren’t having any fun.

  • Jabari Bird: “We get to the games, we’re just thinking too much. We get kind of stagnant. We need to get some flow to our offense, play with some swag.”
  • Ivan Rabb: “We weren’t enjoying the game in the first half.”
  • Jaylen Brown: “We need to play with more energy. We’re in a rut right now.”

So, the question is what gives? The simple answer is something Tennessee fans are shouting from the hilltops: Cuonzo Martin can’t coach! Now, this is a guy who has been a head coach for a grand total of seven seasons. He’s got a career 142-97 (59.4%) record, a Sweet Sixteen, a Missouri Valley Coach of the Year award and his team’s record has improved in every season in every stop he’s ever made during his coaching career. So, while we’ll take that simplistic statement with a grain of salt, this is a guy who admittedly has plenty to prove. And without a doubt, he has had trouble patching together all this talent in the early part of this season, as the team has certainly been less than the sum of its parts. The offense has been patchy at best, especially when they’re slowed down. Against a zone defense, there have been long stretches without quality looks. And most concerning of all has been the defense. They’ve shut down the bad teams they’ve faced appropriately, but in the only games against quality competition, they’ve been exposed.

Questions About Cuonzo Mount As Cal Struggles

Questions About Cuonzo Mount As Cal Struggles

Then there’s the talk about chemistry problems. You hear the players talk about it on record and everybody gets along. But they’ve got five legitimate offensive players who all want to get their chances, but as always, there’s only one ball out there. Brown, in particular, has struggled early, putting up too many threes and making too few, while underperforming his abilities around the hoop and at the line. Despite a healthy lead in possessions used and shots taken over the rest of this roster, Brown is only averaging 14.7 points (while averaging 11.7 FGA/gm), and there have been whispers that he’s not exactly the greatest teammate in the world. But, let’s leave them at unconfirmed whispers and move on.

You see, we’re just nine games into this grand experiment. If we wanted to be generous in interpreting everything so far, we could say that Cal was the Cal we expected Cal to be in the first four and a half games of the season. But then they had a (really) bad half against San Diego State after a day full of turkey. They let that first taste of disappointment and frustration spiral into an underwhelming effort against Richmond the next day. The Wyoming game was a tough game at a tough place against a team whose senior leader went nuts on national TV. And then they sleep-walked through an Incarnate Word game like teams are apt to do in early December. In other words: back off the ledge.

And all of that may be in the rearview mirror sooner rather than later, because in the next four games, the Bears host Saint Mary’s, then get a breather against Coppin State, then travel to Virginia, then host Davidson. Long story short: we’ll know a hell of a lot more about the Golden Bears when they get through with that stretch. But the flip side of that is this: the preseason glorified exhibition games are all but over. Aside from Coppin State, from here until Jaylen Brown declares for the NBA Draft, the Golden Bears schedule is littered with quality teams. Efforts like the Bears displayed against Incarnate Word will result in losses from here on out. For Martin, Brown and the rest of the gang, the time is now. You’ve been bad so far. But your entire season, and all of your goals, are still ahead of you.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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