Maybe a season with lowered expectations is just what the Golden Bears need.
“I think we have a chance to be just as good as anybody in the league,” Cal coach Cuonzo Martin says. “On paper, it’s Oregon. After that, everybody’s talented.”
Including the Bears, who will be led by shooting guard Jabari Bird and forward Ivan Rabb, who passed on being a likely NBA Lottery pick to return for his sophomore season. Without question, however, the expectations this season are muted compared to a year ago, when Cal began the season in the top 25, thanks to the arrival of elite freshmen Rabb and Jaylen Brown.
All the high hopes came crashing down in the span of a few days, leading to a stunning exit in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Assistant coach Yann Hufnagel was ousted amid claims of sexual harassment. Senior point guard Tyrone Wallace broke his hand in practice two days before the NCAA opener vs. Hawaii, and then Bird developed back spasms during warmups and watched from the bench as the fourth-seeded Bears lost 77–66.
Brown departed for the NBA, and senior-to-be Jordan Mathews, one of the Pac-12’s best 3-point shooters, transferred to Gonzaga. But Rabb is a huge centerpiece, and he gives the Bears potentially one of the nation’s elite players. Bird should be motivated after missing the chance to play in his first NCAA Tournament, and the Bears added three newcomers who will provide depth in the backcourt.
All Pac-12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Cuonzo Martin
2015-16 RECORD (PAC-12): 23–11 (12–6)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Hawaii 77-66 in the first round
2016-17 PREDICTION: Fourth in Pac-12
F Jaylen Brown (14.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.0 apg)
G Jordan Mathews (13.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg)
G Tyrone Wallace (15.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.4 apg)
The confidence that Rabb gained late in his freshman season suggests that a special sophomore campaign awaits. Rabb shot 61.5 percent for the season, had 12 double-doubles and averaged 14.5 points over the final eight games after becoming more comfortable making plays while facing the basket.
“You see the every-day growth — just being more assertive every time down the floor, more demanding of the ball, being a leader,” Martin says.
Rabb will play alongside a 7-footer again this season, with juniors Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh both returning. Rooks is the starter and the better offensive player, while Okoroh provides rim protection when he can stay out of foul trouble.
Senior Roger Moute a Bidias and redshirt freshman Roman Davis both can provide quickness and energy — but not a lot of scoring — from the small forward slot.
The Bears are hoping for a breakout season from Bird, a former McDonald’s All-American who struggled with injuries and consistency his first two seasons but shot 40.9 percent from the 3-point arc last season and had four 20-point performances over the Bears’ final 10 games. Martin sees a difference in Bird, “just watching him now, demanding from himself every possession to be an impact player on both ends of the floor.”
Senior point guard Sam Singer is not a big numbers guy, although he had 11 assists in Cal’s 20-point win over an Oregon team ranked No. 11 at the time. But he sees the floor well, and there were times last season when the Bears’ halfcourt offense ran most efficiently with Singer at the controls.
Senior wing Stephen Domingo, who had an uneven debut season for Cal last year, will get the chance to show off the talent that originally landed him at Georgetown. He scored a total of 20 points against Pac-12 opponents last season.
Freshman Charlie Moore, a late signee who originally was headed to Memphis, will provide a quick, offense-minded counterpunch to Singer off the bench. Transfers Grant Mullins and Dontae Coleman, both considered combo guards, will compete for the third backcourt job.
Point guard Charlie Moore, a consensus 4-star prospect who averaged 28 points, seven assists and five steals as a senior at Morgan Park High in Chicago, will get immediate playing time. Combo guard Grant Mullins had 28 double-digit scoring games at Columbia last season, and Dontae Coleman averaged 19.9 points in junior college.
Martin may not enjoy the depth of talent he had a year ago, when the Bears’ roster produced two NBA Draft picks. But this group has some battle scars and, Martin believes, the mindset to play defense the way he wants.
“Defensively, we had great numbers in the league last year,” Martin says. “We have a chance to be even better this year defensively.”
Martin is convinced that his veteran players will keep a bad taste in their mouths about their sudden exit from the NCAA Tournament and use it as fuel.
“They’re definitely hungry. You can see the energy in the workouts,” he says. “We have seniors, and you can’t buy that kind of experience.”