With a 78-67 win over a pretty decent Eastern Washington team Friday night, California has equaled its best start in 55 years, at 10-1. Between Cal and the red-hot Golden State Warriors, basketball excitement is palpable in the Bay Area once again.
Wisconsin (10-1) rolls into Berkeley representing Cal's biggest opportunity for validation yet. The upstart Golden Bears already defeated then-No. 23 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden, 73-59, in the 2K Classic. As it turns out, the Orange are all sorts of messed up right now, rendering the win less impressive. Cal is coached by former Purdue star Cuonzo Martin, who played in the Big Ten from 1991-95.
We doubled our firepower today to preview Monday night's clash of one-loss teams, so both Ruey Yen and Nick Kranz from California Golden Blogs have joined us for some Q&A. Let's get started.
B5Q: What are your early impressions of Cuonzo Martin as a head coach? What are the obvious differences in philosophy compared to Mike Montgomery, who was considered more of an offensive coach?
Ruey Yen: I, and I believe the Cal fanbase as well, have been quite pleased with Cuonzo Martin. He is smart to play to the strength of the team that he inherited, pushing the ball to score on fastbreaks whenever it can. Consequently this Cal team is playing at a much faster pace than his Tennessee team last year.
Coach Montgomery was known for his great playcalling, that aspect of Coach Martin's job has (somewhat surprisingly) not been tested that much so far. While Cal has been involved in a few close games so far, late defensive plays (or rather opponents' offensive miscues to turn the ball over) have negated the need to run a set play late.
Nick Kranz: The early impressions are essentially all positive. Martin came in with an excellent reputation, immediately impressed everybody with his demeanor and attitude, and then proved he's more than just talk with strong early results. There were rumblings during the coaching search that current players were strongly advocating for a previous assistant coach, but Martin smoothed over any transitional issues and got the entire roster to buy in to his style and system.
I don't think he's vastly different from Monty, but there are certainly nuances. Both coaches favored a disciplined man-to-man defense that, when done properly, prevents easy buckets and offensive rebounds. But Martin's defense is a little more high energy, and he emphasizes it a little more vehemently. Offensively, there's been a subtle shift towards a more modern style of basketball, with a slight shift away from the mid-range game. I wouldn't say that Monty's offense emphasized mid-range jumpers, but Martin has been a bit more clear that he wants his offense to get good looks in the paint or from behind the arc. Martin has also perhaps shown a bit more flexibility in terms of shaping the plays he calls to match the skillset of the player in question. But to be honest, these are all very subtle differences.
B5Q: With regards to the non-conference schedule, do you feel this team has been adequately tested yet? Can California hang its hat on the Syracuse and Wyoming wins if it hopes to receive an NCAA bid?
Ruey: I think the Cal schedule this year is adequately strong for the Bears to potentially get a NCAA bid, depending on whether they can finish in the upper half of the conference play. Even though Syracuse is not as good this year, that win should be good as a top-50 RPI win. Most importantly, the Bears have avoided a bad loss so far (knock on wood). Even though the Pac-12, outside of Arizona, has a lot of parity, there are plenty of available and plausible (borderline) top-50 RPI wins in conference play.
Nick: Yes and no. The schedule has undeniably been weak in part because the 2K Classic gave Cal two games against really awful, RPI 300+ teams, and in part because Syracuse this year doesn't seem to be a typical Syracuse. On the other hand, Cal has played some stylistically weird, decent mid-majors that hopefully should be a moderate resume boost come March.
But it's clear that, unless Cal beats Wisconsin, there will be work to do in Pac-12 play. I'm not convinced Cal's schedule is strong enough this year so that the standard canard of '20 wins and you're in' will hold up.
More Opponent Q&A
More Opponent Q&A
B5Q: Can you discuss the development of junior guard Tyrone Wallace, who has stepped up into a high-usage role as Cal's go-to player this season?
Ruey: I have been very pleased with the development of Tyrone Wallace this past offseason. He has always shown flashes of brilliance in the past, either scoring or defensively due to athleticism that was always evident. Inconsistency and being the primary playmaker were genuine concerns about him that he has so far assuaged. More than anything else, he has shown the ability to take over the games this year (to be fair, against teams that are not all that athletic) when his teammates' shots are not falling.
With that said, Wallace really need to work on his free throw shooting, particularly late in the game in pressure situations. Already this year, he has missed several key front ends of 1-and-1 chances late in games.
Nick: Ty is such a fun, versatile player. His knock had always been iffy shooting (see his FT%) and decision making. As I alluded to above, Martin has simplified the decisions Ty has to make, and as a result he has flourished in his role as primary offensive creator.
His main attribute is strength combined with point guard handles, which allows him to attack a defense off the dribble relentlessly without turning the ball over much. With Jabari Bird out with an injury Cal is has/had been lacking in offensive options, and the best bet was to give the ball to Ty, let him improvise on the drive, and something good would probably happen.
Can it work against a defense like Wisconsin? That's tougher to say, and Cal will almost certainly have to diversify the attack.
B5Q: The Golden Bears shoot well on threes (36.9%) but do not take a lot of outside shots. Additionally, Cal doesn't get to the line a lot so a majority of its scoring comes from two-point baskets. Do you expect this trend to continue throughout the year or is it a result of Martin feeling out his roster or the level of competition faced so far?
Ruey: Like I said before, the Bears have been doing a lot of fast break pushing so far. That resulted in quite a few layup opportunities. Actually, the Bears have missed quite a few seemingly makeable two-point baskets so far.
Whenever Jabari Bird is healthy and back in the lineup, I expect the Bears to shoot and make more 3-pointers. His presence offensively should also give other players more rooms to make plays inside the arcs.
Nick: I think Cal wants to take more three-point shots, but part of it is an issue with the roster. There are probably only two guys who should always have the green light to shoot threes: Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird. Mathews is a known quantity from deep, and as a result gets plenty of perimeter attention. Bird has been out with an injury. As a result, Cal hasn't taken as many threes as you would otherwise expect.
Wallace and Sam Singer will take threes if they are open or the possession is breaking down, but neither are great shooters. So with that in mind, the focus of the offense is going to be attacking the bucket.
B5Q: Defensively, the Bears have been very impressive thus far, but they'll have their hands full inside against Wisconsin's trio of Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker. How do you expect senior David Kravish to fare in his matchup specifically and who is around to help him out?
Ruey: Big man depth has been a concern for the Bears coming into the season. So far Christian Behrens has proved to be finally healthy and able to be productive despite a bit undersized. Another very pleasant surprise has been the play of 7-footer freshman Kingsley Okoroh (who decommitted from Tennessee and followed Cuonzo to Cal). Despite his supposed rawness, King has been able to contribute key minutes for the Bears so far, despite losing another 7-footer in sophomore Kameron Rooks to season-ending injury before the start of the season.
Still, the main big man for the Bears is David Kravish. The drop-off from him, if he does get in foul trouble, is pretty huge. Kravish is about to break the program record in blocks. He is also one of the more consistent source of offense for the Bears, despite his struggles in the last couple of games. Because of the matchup inside, I think this game favors the Badgers.
Nick: I'm not super optimistic. Kravish is actually a pretty excellent defender -- he's smart, he moves well, and he has long arms that will result in him breaking Cal's career blocks record before the year ends. But he's not a huge guy, and can be prone to getting pushed around when he faces truly elite big men. Luckily for Cal, most teams don't have multiple elite big men.
Texas did, and the game was ugly. Wisconsin does, and the game could be ugly as a result. Kravish's main help inside will come from Christian Behrens, who makes up for average size with lots of effort and tenacity. Freshman 7-footer Kingsley Okoroh will come off the bench, although his playing time has been diminishing of late. Both are solid defenders, but struggled comparatively against Texas.
B5Q: Looking down the road, Cal has a pair of exciting perimeter players in sophomores Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird. What are expectations in Berkeley surrounding the program and where things are headed in the next few years under Martin?
Ruey: I think the outlook and expectation for the program next year will depend greatly on the results on the recruiting front, in which the fanbase is getting rather optimistic about the addition of a couple impact freshman. Wallace, Bird, and Mathews are all potential future NBA players, but they are also not so in demand that we expect any of them to turn pro. If things all fall right for the Bears, we may be looking at a top-25, title contending team next year.
Nick: Lots of optimism. Everybody loved pretty much everything about the Monty era. He was a brilliant developer of talent and game-plans, and his teams were a delight to watch. But by the time he got to Cal he essentially admitted that he hated recruiting, and didn't want to get involved in the AAU scene. As a result, Cal constantly struggled to attract high-end talent.
Right now, fans feel like Cal managed to secure a coach who possesses many of the same attributes as Monty, but he's committed to changing how Cal recruits. For the first time in probably a decade Cal is in the mix for elite west coast recruits, and that has people excited.
B5Q: Would you like to make a prediction for Monday's final score?
Ruey: The Bears showed some fight in the Texas game to keep that one relatively close. I think the difference in this one will be single digit, but with the Badgers in front.
Nick: Whatever Kenpom says, except I think Cal might score a little less than what he says.
For more on Cal sports, check out @GoldenBlogs on the twitters. Our thanks to Ruey, Nick and the whole CGB crew for pitching in on today's grill session. Remember to check out our answers to their questions here also.
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For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.