Why Isn’t California Basketball a Monster?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 25th, 2016

During the Glory Years of Cal basketball, Pete Newell had the Bears playing at an elite level year after year. How elite? Newell’s Golden Bears beat John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins eight straight times before Newell retired. He took the Bears to four NCAA Tournaments (1957-60), landed consecutive Final Four appearances (1959-60, and won the 1959 National Championship. Those were to be his final four years in Berkeley, and Cal hasn’t come anywhere near those highs since. In fact, Cal went nearly 30 seasons without a single NCAA Tournament appearance after Newell’s departure, and even considering a few lesser peaks through the Todd Bozeman, Ben Braun, and Mike Montgomery eras, at no point has Cal again been considered among the top programs in college basketball.

Pete Newell Was the Only Coach Who Dominated John Wooden

Pete Newell Was the Only Coach Who Dominated John Wooden

And that brings us to Cuonzo Martin.

There are many moving parts to putting together a successful basketball program, but time and again everything tends to come down to two questions: Do you have the right guy, and do you have enough money? The right guy, of course, plays a big role in answering the latter question. First, he needs to build an identity (that tends to focus on a specific side of the ball), some attribute, or sometimes just a pace of play. Think about Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams as physical, Mike Krzyzweski’s ruthlessly prolific motion offense at Duke, or Jim Boeheim’s zone defense at Syracuse. What can we say about Martin’s “brand” of basketball?  He’s only in his third season at Berkeley. In season one, the Bears ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  In season two, thanks to the arrivals of Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, Cal qualified for the NCAA Tournament on the backs of the fourth-best offensive efficiency and best defensive efficiency in the league.

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Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 1

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 22nd, 2016

The first full week of the season is finished so it is time for the first of what will be a recurring feature called Pac-12 Power Rankings. Each week we will take a look at where each team in the conference stands to date.

Finnish 7' Lauri Markkanen has been everything expected and more for the Wildcats. (Arizona Athletics)

Finnish center Lauri Markkanen has been everything and more for the Wildcats. (Arizona Athletics)

  1. Arizona: The Wildcats boast the best win of any team in the conference (Michigan State) and are still missing arguably their best player in Allonzo Trier. Lauri Markkanen has so far lived up to the hype and classmate Kobi Simmons has been surprisingly efficient offensively. Sean Miller’s club is posting the best defensive numbers in the conference and if Trier returns soon, Arizona could be poised for another excellent season.
  2. UCLA: The Bruins haven’t played anyone of note so we should reserve some judgment here but so far they have looked very good. Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf have been everything UCLA fans ever could have hoped for. Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford are two of the most complementary pieces in the conference, especially when they are shooting well, and Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh provide quality depth across the board. Steve Alford deserves some credit for the Bruins’ early potency in a key season for this program. Read the rest of this entry »
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Pac-12 Burning Questions: Is Ivan Rabb an NPOY Contender?

Posted by Adam Butler on November 2nd, 2016

It’s been floated around the league that California‘s Ivan Rabb could contend for the National Player of the Year award (more on that and other Pac-12 prognostications later). From what we saw last season, however, the Bay Area big man is wildly efficient and offensively underutilized. To quantify: 120.0 offensive rating; 62 percent inside the arc; top-100 (nationally) eFG% and true shooting percentage. From a utilization standpoint, Rabb played 70 percent of the available minutes (a bit above average for most big men) with a very pedestrian 20 percent usage rate during his time on the floor. His lack of involvement with the offense last season was at times heartbreaking. Meanwhile, teammates Tyrone Wallace and Jaylen Brown hovered around the herculean usage mark. For context against Rabb’s 70/20 minutes/usage ratio, Wallace and Brown were 68/32 and 65/28, respectively. Seriously, the two Bears finished first and second in Pac-12 usage, respectively, one of just three pairs of teammates to lead a conference in such. Naturally this becomes a numbers game — Rabb will get more touches and a corresponding increase in usage, and his scoring efficiency suggests that he will thrive when he gets that opportunity. Consequently, the talk of a National Player of the Year effort.

Ivan Rabb for player of the year? Only if his teammates help him. (Pac-12 Networks)

Ivan Rabb for Player of the Year? Only if his teammates help him. (Pac-12 Networks)

And yet two thoughts immediately come to mind: 1) Cuonzo Martin knows how to milk his stars for all they’re worth and he isn’t afraid to give the ball to those individuals. In which case, Rabb could get all of the touches for seemingly every minute he’s on the floor (something akin to Brown’s one-and-done experience); or 2) Martin’s strength is on the defensive end and he won’t necessarily optimize the offensive end. This dichotomous thinking is the fodder to Cal’s burning hot fire question. If we look at Martin’s teams historically, they’ve generally followed the pattern of riding two horses to their best success. Last year it was Brown and Wallace (at not particularly high efficiency). During his 2014 Tennessee campaign (24-13, Sweet Sixteen appearance), it was Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes (28.9% and 25.9% usage rates, respectively) yet at very efficient numbers (each greater than 115.0 offensive ratings). At Missouri State in 2011 (26-9), it was Kyle Weems (25.2%) and Will Creekmore (25.7%) who logged greater than 110.0 offensive ratings. All of which leads us to a third (perhaps fourth) question: Can Jabari Bird be that second guy? He’s played his entire California career somewhat in the shadows after arriving to considerable hype. Gone are Wallace and Brown, but so too is sharpshooter Jordan Mathews, who chose to grad-bolt for Gonzaga. This ultimately feels like a Bears’ roster that is thin on high-major bodies and talent — two critical pieces not only to earning a teammate the highest individual hardware, but also for making another NCAA Tournament. Consider the last four NPOYs:

  • 2016 – Buddy Hield, Oklahoma – #2 seed
  • 2015 – Frank Kaminski, Wisconsin – #1 seed
  • 2014 – Doug McDermott, Creighton – #3 seed
  • 2013 – Trey Burke, Michigan – #2 seed

Does Rabb have the talent to be an NPOY? Absolutely. Does he have the teammates? It’s going to take more than just a strong senior year out of Jabari Bird. Which is a long-winded and politically correct way of saying: No.

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Rushed Reactions: #13 Hawaii 77, #4 California 66

Posted by Kenny Ocker on March 18th, 2016

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCEastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCSouthregion and @RTCWestregionKenny Ocker is covering the Spokane pods of the South and West regionals this week.

Three Key Takeaways:

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The Magic of March Goes to Hawaii (USA Today Images)

  1. Cal really, really missed its starting backcourt: The Golden Bears came to Spokane knowing it would be without its lone senior and leading scorer, point guard Tyrone Wallace, who broke his hand in practice earlier this week. They didn’t account for shooting guard Jabari Bird also being unexpectedly sidelined by back spasms just before the opening tip. And then backup-point-guard-cum-starter Sam Singer and superfreshman Jaylen Brown picked up three fouls apiece in the first half and magnified that problem. Brown ended up fouling out with about eight minutes left in the second half and the Bears still in the game, but they were never able to close it out without him on the court. He finished with a mere four points. Singer had 12 points before fouling out. Cal only had six assists in the game.
  2. REF SHOW! Speaking of all those fouls… there were 25 in the first half, which didn’t let the game generate any sort of flow. Singer and Brown had three apiece in the first half. Four of Hawaii’s starters had two fouls by that point. And then the Rainbows’ star center, Stefan Jankovic, picked up his fourth foul less than four minutes into the second half. All told, the game ended with 49 fouls, including disqualifications of Brown and Singer for Cal, and four Hawaii players finishing with four fouls. The tight officiating made it difficult to watch what should have otherwise been an entertaining #13 over #4 upset.
  3. Hawaii ignored Cal’s vaunted interior defense: The Bears came into Friday’s game with the nation’s best two-point field goal defense, according to KenPom, giving up a mere 40.9 percent shooting inside the three-point arc. Hawaii did not care. The Warriors made 24-of-38 shots inside the arc (63%), including 6-of-8 inside shooting from guards Quincy Smith and Roderick Bobbitt and 5-of-7 inside shooting from center Stefan Jankovic.

Star of the Game: Hawaii guard Quincy Smith: The slashing senior wing got to the basket at will all game against Cal, hanging up 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting, including a perfect 4-of-4 in the second half.

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Jabari Bird is Leading Cal’s Resurgence

Posted by Mike Lemaire on March 1st, 2016

After thumping UCLA last week, Cal forward Jabari Bird told reporters that the primary reason for the Bears’ recent success was that they were “coming together as a team.” It is a nice sentiment but it isn’t why the Bears are winning. What Bird is too humble to admit is that Cal is winning because he was one of the Pac-12’s best players in February. His 12-point, five-rebound effort against USC over the weekend came in the wake of 20 points — including 5-of-8 threes — against UCLA, and and that wasn’t even his best performance of the last two weeks. His contribution against the Bruins was the third game in two weeks in which he has scored more than 20 points and made at least four 3-pointers, and it illustrates why the Bears have now won seven games in a row.

Cal forward Jabari Bird Is Helping His Team Finally Live Up To the Preseason Hype

Cal forward Jabari Bird Is Helping His Team Finally Live Up To All of the Preseason Hype. (AP)

Bird is averaging 15.3 points per game and is shooting 58 percent from both the floor and downtown during the streak. If you toss out a dud performance at Washington, he is averaging better than 18.0 points per game and is shooting better than 60 percent from the field. That is twice his season scoring average and the 22 threes he has made during the streak is more than twice as many as he made in the nine previous conference games. If that wasn’t enough perspective, the number of career games in which Bird has made at least four threes has doubled (from three to six) and the number of games in which he has made at least five threes has tripled (from one to three) in the past two weeks. Consequently, his shooting percentage from downtown has risen by seven percent (from 33% to 40%), and he has seemingly overnight gone from being one of the most disappointing players in the Pac-12 to perhaps its most important, at least relative to his team’s success. Read the rest of this entry »

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On the Quiet Rise of the California Golden Bears

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@Amurawa) on January 6th, 2016

About three weeks ago, after California struggled to put much of any space between itself and Incarnate Word, we here at the Pac-12 microsite staged an intervention. Without actually intervening, of course. But we did call out the Golden Bears’ loaded roster for poor defensive effort, a general lack of energy, non-existent half-court offense and questionable chemistry. Given that it only a month into the season, we still gave Cuonzo Martin‘s team a pass with upcoming dates against St. Mary’s, Virginia, Davidson and the entirety of the Pac-12 on the horizon. Since that December 9 game, the Golden Bears have gone 5-1, with the sole loss coming in an overtime affair at Virginia, KenPom‘s fourth-best team in America. That loss, if anything, gave Cal its first taste of credibility. So are the the boys from Berkeley now out of the woods and headed to the Final Four? Hmmmmm.

In Recent Weeks, Jordan Mathews Can't Seem To Miss (Mike Stobe, Getty Images)

In Recent Weeks, Jordan Mathews Can’t Seem To Miss. (Mike Stobe, Getty Images)

There is a lot to be excited about in the East Bay right now. Jordan Mathews can’t miss (52.3 percent from three-point range). Jabari Bird is finally showing the two-way consistency that was missing in his first two campaigns. Kameron Rooks and Kinglsey Okoroh are making wholly unanticipated leaps into relevance as capable big men on both ends. Ivan Rabb  is impressing with his ability to both pull bigs away from the hoop but also bang with them down low. Sam Singer has been a legitimately good reserve off the pine. Jaylen Brown, while still struggling to put it all together, has started hitting more jumpers while improving his defensive effort and terrorizing opponents in transition. All of this is happening while senior point guard Tyrone Wallace is in the midst of a serious drought (13.3 percent from three-point range; three turnovers per game). In past years, such a malaise from Wallace would have surely coincided with a significant losing streak (see: last year’s devastating 1-8 stretch in late December and January).

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Pac-12 Bests and Worsts of the Week: Vol. III

Posted by Mike Lemaire on December 16th, 2015

With notable results filtering in throughout the week, the complexion of the Pac-12 has undergone significant change in the last seven days. Here’s a look at some of the highlights — and lowlights — of recent action.

Best Audition for NBA Scouts

Colorado's George King Has The Shooting And The Size To Make NBA Scouts Take Notice

Colorado’s George King Has The Shooting And The Size To Make NBA Scouts Take Notice.

Last week we highlighted the NBA potential of a stretch seven-footer like UCLA’s Thomas Welsh and this week it is Colorado forward George King’s moment in the spotlight. The 6’6″, 220-pounder is shooting 50 percent from behind the three-point arc after making four of his six attempts in the Buffs’ win over BYU and has an NBA body so we have to imagine he is getting looked at a little. The redshirt sophomore has zero track record or pedigree, which makes his efficiency all the more surprising. With all the talk in the NBA of the importance of threes and free throws, what is better than a player who is doing exactly that and little else? And therein lies the rub. King has three-and-defense potential but he currently doesn’t play very much defense and he doesn’t pass much either. He is primarily an offensive player at this point and although he is a gifted shooter, he won’t shoot 50 percent from downtown this season. If he can stay efficient and work hard on becoming a better rebounder and defender, there is no doubt he has NBA ability.

Best Non-Conference Scheduling

UCLA is obligated to play a star-studded non-conference schedule because of who they are but it sure seems like the Bruins are cutting their teeth against a legitimate Sweet Sixteen contender every week. Oh wait… they ARE playing a legitimate Sweet Sixteen contender every week. After an impressive win over Gonzaga in Spokane over the weekend, UCLA now owns two (the other is Kentucky) of the most impressive non-conference wins of any team in the country. Considering two of the team’s three losses were in a preseason tournament halfway across an ocean, we are inclined to believe those wins will vastly outweigh the losses in the eyes of any committee that may or may not evaluate the Bruins for postseason play. The Bruins will likely end up in a lot of bubble discussions in February and there is no doubt these games help teams prepare for the pressure of similar games in the postseason. They aren’t done either. UCLA plays North Carolina in Brooklyn on Saturday.

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Cal Handles Its Business, An Uneventful But Good Thing

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 17th, 2015

There was absolutely nothing noteworthy about Cal’s 85-67 thrashing of UC Santa Barbara last night in Berkeley, but if the Golden Bears are going to be the contender that they have been advertised as this preseason, that is without question a very good thing.

Cal Rolled to Its Second Win of the Season Last Night Versus UCSB

Cal Rolled to Its Second Win of the Season Versus UCSB Last Night

Cal didn’t play all that well against the Gauchos. Freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb battled foul trouble all night long, and head coach Cuonzo Martin mentioned afterward that his offense looked stagnant in settling for too many three-pointers (the Bears finished just 6-of-22 from downtown). But UC Santa Barbara is not your typical cupcake either, as the Gauchos were picked by some pundits to win the Big West this season — the type of opponent where a loss would hurt far more than a win helps. But instead of letting UCSB keep the score close and build confidence as the game wore on, Cal instead trampled them from the start with its vastly superior size and athleticism. This fact is easily illustrated in that the Bears’ margin of victory (18) was nearly identical to the difference in made free throws between the the two teams (17). The game was clearly over by midway through the second half, but the final score appeared closer than it actually was after Martin emptied his bench in the final minutes.

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Five Things That Scare Us About the Pac-12

Posted by Mike Lemaire on October 30th, 2015

Nothing says Halloween like a hastily constructed list replete with a truly cringe-worthy title…or something. The kickoff to the college basketball season is rapidly approaching and one can never have enough preseason analysis. So without further ado and in honor of everyone’s favorite pseudo-holiday, here are the five scariest things happening in the PAC 12 as we head into the season.

With Lorenzo Romar starting from square one, things could get scary. (USA TODAY Sports)

With Lorenzo Romar starting from square one, things could get scary. (USA TODAY Sports)

Lorenzo Romar’s Job Security

The head coach of the Huskies since 2002, Romar is far and away the longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12 and with pretty good reason. The Huskies won 20 games just once under predecessor Bob Bender. Since Romar took over, the Huskies have won 20 games six times and Romar has been the conference Coach of the Year three times. Unfortunately for Romar, the good times have mostly rolled to a halt in Seattle. The Huskies have barely broken .500 in each of the last three seasons and the team’s best player, Nigel Williams-Goss, transferred in the off-season due to concerns about the direction of the program. To his credit, Romar continues to be an excellent recruiter and has brought in another new crop of talent ready to contribute immediately. Still, even with help from the newcomers, the Huskies figure to finish in the bottom third of the conference standings. If (when?) that happens, Romar’s goodwill may have finally run out.

Watching USC Try To Score

In fairness to the Trojans, almost everyone expects the team’s offense to make a major jump this season. But the flip side of that coin is that making the jump offensively shouldn’t be difficult because of how staggeringly bad the team was on that end last season. In the Pac 12, only Oregon State was less efficient offensively than the Trojans last season. USC also managed to rank near the bottom of the country in every meaningful shooting category (63.4 percent from the free-throw line!). The futility was understandable considering the team was almost exclusively underclassmen, but with a mostly unchanged roster returning, points are likely to still be at a premium. If Jordan McLaughlin is healthy, his shooting should improve, but his shot selection needs a lot of work too. The same can be said for Katin Reinhardt, the team’s most gifted offensive player but also its most trigger-happy. Coach Andy Enfield likes his teams to play with tempo. Last season that led to a lot of running and bricking. Everyone who plans to watch the Trojans this season has their fingers crossed that things will be different this time around.

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