A year after sitting home for college basketball’s postseason, the Golden Bears have other ideas about this season.
“I think we could be really good,” senior point guard Tyrone Wallace says. “I like the guys we have coming in, the recruiting class. We still have important parts here. I think we can make a real run at a Pac-12 championship.”
The arrival of five-star frontcourt recruits Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb to complement three returning double-digit scorers in the backcourt could transform Cal from a team that finished in a three-way tie for eighth in the Pac-12 into a legitimate contender.
Second-year coach Cuonzo Martin’s team has an infusion of offensive firepower and the depth and athleticism to play the pressure-style defense he wants. “I think we’ll fight for the top spot,” Martin says. “It’s exciting times.”
Pac-12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
The difference in the Bears is up front, where Brown, a small forward, was rated as the nation’s No. 4 prospect by 247Sports and Rabb, a power forward, secured the No. 7 spot.
Brown’s unexpected spring signing elevates the Bears. “You’re talking about a guy that’s 6'7", almost 6'8", who is 220 pounds, who can play four different positions,” Martin says. “He can handle the ball. He can shoot the ball. He gets to the rim. He plays inside. He plays outside. He’s one of those guys who’s always in attack mode. He brings the game to you.”
The 6'10" Rabb, whose signing helped attract Brown to Berkeley, should make a smooth transition, Martin says. “He has a lot of skills. He won’t be pressing, because he has experienced guards around him.”
Martin likes a big lineup, so it’s likely that either Kingsley Okoroh or Kameron Rooks will be on the floor whenever possible.
Okoroh, a 7'1" native of England, played 30 games as a freshman last season and showed flashes of potential, especially on defense, where he blocked 28 shots. Rooks, the 7-foot son of one-time Arizona star Sean Rooks, is healthy after missing all of last season to rehab a 2014 ACL injury. He has shed weight and should be able to provide some interior scoring.
No. 13 Cal Bears Facts & Figures
Record: 18-15, 7-11 Pac-12
Last NCAA Tournament: 2013
Pac-12 Projection: 2
Postseason Projection: Sweet 16
Wallace led the Bears in all major statistical categories while earning first-team all-conference honors. He had 11 games of 20-plus points and five double-digit rebounding efforts, but what the Bears need from him could change with the arrival of Rabb and Brown as legitimate scoring options. “When the game is on the line down the stretch, making free throws, making plays, making decisions — that’s the biggest thing,” Martin says of what he expects from Wallace. “Run his team and direct traffic.”
Jordan Mathews, a 44.3-percent 3-point shooter last season, should be even more dangerous on the perimeter with Cal’s improved interior presence. Jabari Bird, a former McDonald’s All-American, was slowed his first two seasons by midseason injuries from which he struggled to regain his confidence and rhythm. But he has high-level talent.
Sam Singer is a capable backup point guard who had four double-digit scoring games in Pac-12 play. Georgetown transfer Stephen Domingo, back in his native Bay Area, adds length and athleticism on the perimeter.
Junior Roger Moute a Bidias and sophomore Brandon Chauca will have to show substantial improvement to find their way into the rotation.
Key Losses: F Christian Behrens, F David Kravish
Top Players: G Tyrone Wallace, G Jordan Matthews, G Jabari Bird, F Jaylen Brown, F Ivan Rabb
Cal’s most heralded recruiting class ever features consensus top-10 prospects Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. Mined from nearby Oakland, Rabb can play either frontcourt position. Brown gives Cal an explosive and versatile player on the wing who also is effective in the paint. Roman Davis was a late signee after four-star shooting guard Tyson Jolly failed to earn admission.
Winning a Pac-12 title in 2016 will be tougher than it was for the Bears six years ago, when they won their first title in a half-century. The conference wasn’t as good then.
Martin, whose team toured Australia in August, has the flexibility to play big or small. His goal is to coax the Bears into playing the kind of defense they’ll need to reach the top of the Pac-12.
The Bears have high-end talent, even if two of the headliners are freshmen. Wallace is a versatile player who could become Cal’s third NBA first-round draft choice next spring, joining potential lottery picks Brown and Rabb. Bird could be ready to blossom. Mathews has put together 30-point games in each of his first two seasons.
Martin believes he has unselfish players, but they must mesh offensively. “The biggest key is them understanding every night it could be somebody different,” Martin says. “That’s a good problem to have.”