You know it’s an upside down season in college basketball when Cal has as much talent as any team in the country. Forget Arizona or Kentucky or Kansas or Duke or UNC - none of those blue-blood programs have more players who intrigue NBA scouts than Cal, a program that hasn’t made the Sweet 16 in 20 years. Despite all that talent, though, there’s no guarantee Cuonzo Martin’s program makes it that far either. He has been blessed with more future NBA players than many NCAA coaches get in a lifetime and it remains to be seen if he can get the most out of them.
Martin is partly the beneficiary of a full cupboard left behind by Mike Montgomery, who unexpectedly retired in 2014 following a six-year run at Berkeley that included five 21+ win seasons and four trips to the NCAA Tournament. Unlike many new coaches at high-major programs, Martin didn’t inherit a program in disarray. There are still three of Montgomery’s players on this year’s team who are getting looked at by NBA scouts - senior PG Tyrone Wallace and junior swingmen Jabari Bird and Jordan Matthews.
From there he made his own luck, taking the program to a whole different level when he reeled in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Raab, two guys that every school in the country was pursuing. Raab was a local kid from Oakland, the first Mr. Basketball in California to not wind up at Arizona in four years. Brown was a mega-recruit from Atlanta who surprised many recruiting pundits by choosing Cal over traditional national powers. Whether it was because of his pre-existing relationship with Raab, Cal’s strong academic profile or because he went to the same high school as Cal alum Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the result was what Martin called a blessing for his fledgling program.
Brown’s decision raised the stakes for Martin’s second season in Berkeley. All of a sudden, just improving from an 18-15 record and making the NCAA Tournament wasn’t enough. The odds of Brown and Raab, both of whom are projected as lottery picks by DraftExpress, staying in school for more than one season aren’t very good. If Martin can’t go on a deep run in March, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to maintain his recruiting momentum and the program could slip back into the middle of the pack in the Pac-12. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither were Arizona and UCLA, the two schools by which everyone else is judged on the West Coast.
For that matter, there’s no guarantee that Cal will even be more than a middle of the pack team in the Pac-12 this season. Having too many talented players is a problem that every coach would love to have it’s still a problem for a coach without too much experience juggling so many egos. Martin made his bones at Tennessee by playing a defensively-minded style around blue-collar players, not running a free-flowing offensive system that gives elite players the opportunity to post huge individual numbers and generate the publicity that boosts their draft stock.
There’s only one basketball to go around and not everyone can be a featured player. Players have to be willing to accept roles that might not maximize their games for the benefit of the team as a whole and count on their unselfishness being rewarded by greater team success that boosts the profiles of everyone involved. That’s been the key to John Calipari’s success at Kentucky - guys know they can still be drafted high in the lottery when they are sharing the ball and playing 20 minutes a night.
For that to happen at Cal, the Golden Bears have to play up to their considerable talent and be one of the best teams in the country. That’s still a work in progress at the moment, though, as Cal is currently unranked with a 12-4 overall record and a 2-1 mark in Pac-12 play. Their best win in non-conference play was at Wyoming and they missed several opportunities to make a splash when they lost to San Diego State and Richmond in a non-conference tournament in Las Vegas and blew a late second-half lead in Charlottesville and lost to Virginia in OT.
Their biggest problem is that opposing teams can pack the paint and dare them to score from the perimeter. The Golden Bears have only two plus three-point shooters - Matthews (41.5%) and Bird (32.8%) - and Bird has struggled this season and is now coming off the bench. Wallace (26.1%) has never been a good three-point shooter while Brown (26.7%) has struggled mightily in that department and Raab has no range outside of 10+ feet. Combine that with two C’s who struggle to score at all - Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh - and Cal has four non-shooters on the floor for large stretches of the game, making it very easy for less-talented teams to guard them.
One solution would be for Martin to unleash all of his athletes and play at a much faster pace, which would create more scoring opportunities for everyone and allow them to get out in transition and minimize the need to shoot from the perimeter. However, according to Team Rankings, Cal is #231 in pace in the country, which makes sense when you consider Martin’s background as a defensive-minded coach. It goes against all of his instincts to play a more uptempo style - he wants to grind out games and squeeze out other teams in the half-court.
The other solution would be to move everyone down a position - sliding Brown from SF to PF and Raab from PF to C. Brown is 6’7 225 with a 6’11 wingspan and Raab is 6’11 215 with a 7’2 wingspan so it’s not like they don’t have the size and athleticism to handle the transition. That move would take out a non-scoring big man and allow them to play another shooter and it would give both blue-chip players more room to attack the basket, where they are at their best. The problem is that playing against bigger players exposes them to foul trouble and it means playing five guys who are most comfortable with the ball in their hands.
Wallace is a 6’6 PG who plays similar to Michael Carter-Williams in that he can’t stretch the floor and is most effective using his size to score over the top of defenders in the lane. Matthews is a big-time scorer with multiple 30+ point games in his college career who isn’t as comfortable spotting up off the ball. Bird is a McDonald’s All-American who was the most high profile recruit at Cal in a long time before Brown and Raab. Those two, meanwhile, didn’t choose a lower-profile school like Cal so they could be role players for a bunch of upperclassmen who might be drafted in the second round if everything goes right.
That’s what jumps out to me about watching Cal this season. It’s not that their players are selfish so much as that they have so many guys who can create their own shot that they end up taking turns dominating the ball instead of consistently moving it from side to side and hunting for the best shot. Combine that with a lack of three-point shooting and their coach’s desire to play a low-possession game and you have the formula for a team that plays down to their competition, one that can beat anyone and lose to almost anyone.
That, in turn, affects the draft stock of all their players. Brown isn’t allowed to play in space and he can’t post the type of numbers that would put him in the same conversation as Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, although it’s unclear whether he has the shooting or passing ability to be in that discussion anyway. Raab is one of the most efficient scorers in the country and he doesn’t get the ball or in the pick-and-roll nearly enough. Wallace’s numbers have stagnated because of the number of talented players on their roster while Matthews and Bird have taken clear steps back as juniors. Bird was a guy once projected as a first-round pick coming out of high school who has completely fallen off the national radar - he still has the physical tools and the shooting stroke to be an NBA player but no one cares about a guy putting up average stats on an average NCAA team.
All this goes away if Martin can get everyone to buy into his system, get more shooting on the floor and maximize the talent on hand in Berkeley. Cal has all the pieces to make a run to the Final Four but if they don’t play as a team instead of a collection of individual players they could easily be upset in the first round of the Tourney. If that happens, the questions about his coaching ability that plagued him at Tennessee will pop right back up again. Bringing in elite players is only the first step to becoming an elite program - you still have to know what to do with them. Having more talent than the other team helps but it isn’t enough to win in March.