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Cal Men's Basketball Preview

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It's a new era for Cal basketball as future coaching Hall of Famer Mike Montgomery chose to ride off into the sunset on his terms following last season.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off a Sweet 16 berth with the Tennessee Vols, Cuonzo Martin takes over the blue and gold reins with the task of invigorating a Cal program that just hasn't been able to take that next step into national prominence.

Although the departure of seniors Justin Cobbs, Richard Solomon, and Ricky Kreklow leave an experience-void, the cupboard is far from bare. The best-rated recruiting class of the Monty era went through their freshman growing pains last year and hope to springboard that experience into a big leap forward this season.

While senior David Kravish anchors the middle, Tyrone Wallace, Jabari Bird, and Jordan Mathews are all explosive scoring options on the wing. Perhaps the biggest personnel question is who will fill the giant-killing shoes of Justin Cobbs at point guard. Best guess here is that it will be Sam Singer with Wallace sliding over as needed to give him a breather. If we see true frosh Brandon Chauca, it had better be as a human victory cigar or it likely means we have foul or injury trouble.

Question #2 is whether our primary lineup will feature two posts or just one.  Although Kravish is a known quantity, we don't have a proven option for a second big.  Christian Behrens has only seen spot duty up to this point, and just hasn't been able to stay healthy.  Kingsley Okoroh has the size, but most true frosh bigs struggle mightily during their first year.  Cornell transfer Dwight Tarwater is an under-sized tweener, though he might be strong enough to defend certain match-ups.

Best-case is that Behrens steps up his game to the point where he wins a starting spot next to Kravish.  Then, we can rotate in Okoroh or Tarwater as needed with the option of going small depending on match-ups.

If our best line-up proves to be Kravish and four guards, it might actually be our most effective offensive unit.  However, our ability to clear the defensive boards would be a huge concern.  Wallace and perhaps Moute a Bidias are the only wings who might be able to guard the 4-spot...and that's with a big question mark.

Going beyond the personnel, we won't know for certain how Coach Martin plans to mold this team on either end of the floor until we actually see it.  With last year being a bit of an aberration, we typically knew what we'd get with a Monty-coached team. Fundamentally-sound in the half-court, well-prepared, and count on at least one easy bucket per game off of a timeout.

Based on his time at Tennessee, we can make a few educated guesses:

1) Defense, Bears! Defense!

Martin likes his players to play physical, intense man to man defense. His teams close out hard and make it a point to drive shooters off of the three point line.

In his own words from Pac-12 Media Day:  " I think for me personally, my style is a level of toughness, defend, rebound, play hard..."

2) Motion offense

From an interview with Scout, Coach Martin describes his vision of the offense:

"We run a motion-style offense," Martin said. "We have spacing and we penetrate the gaps. We throw it inside to our bigs. I'm one of those guys that, if you're a guard and you can post up, then you post up. If you're a big, you can play on the perimeter. It's a free-flowing offense with a lot of spacing, setting screens and attacking the rim. Last year, we were one of five teams in the country that was in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. You have to be able to do both."

At the open practice, resident CGB hoops expert, Reef, noted both a high pick and roll set as well as a one which allowed our wing to be the primary decision-maker.  The full practice write-up is here.

3) Ludicrous speed
Or not. Per Kenpom, Tennessee was ranked #323 last year with regards to tempo.  However, Tennessee's strength was with two formidable bruisers inside.  Since Cal's personnel looks better suited to push the pace, it'll be interesting to see if Coach Martin adapts to the horses he's got.  From what he said at Pac-12 Media Day, it sounds like that might be the case:

4) Foul trouble will be troubling
Like Monty, Coach Martin tends to lean on his starters and 2-3 key reserves. Three of Tennessee's starters last year averaged over 30 minutes per game.


Bigs:

F David Kravish(Sr), 6'10, 240 lbs, 11.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.1 bpg

If anything, Kravish was almost too much of a team player last year and didn't look enough for his own shot. As our lone post player and senior, that has to change this year. I wouldn't be surprised to see Martin run a lot of our offense building off of Kravish's scoring either on the block or the high post. Defensively, Kravish is at his best as a help side shot blocker. Unfortunately, he'll have to handle primary duty on the other team's best big man now that Richard Solomon has graduated. On the other hand, Kravish really shined when in spot duty as our solo post. Whenever Solomon was out injured or in foul trouble, it was like a switch clicked on and Kravish would assert himself for a great game. If we see that type of play consistently, he could challenge for conference honors.  He's reportedly been working on his range and it sounds like Coach Martin is going to want him to take the high post three-point shot.

F Christian Behrens(Jr*), 6'8, 226 lbs

Just when he was starting to break the rotation as a capable defender and rebounder, another knee injury set Behrens back last year. He has great agility and will flash signs of decent footwork with the ball. But he just hasn't had enough extended run to really settle in and show some scoring ability around the basket. There's a huge opportunity for him to step up and demand extended playing time.

F Dwight Tarwater(Gr), 6'6, 230 lb.

Not known so much for his shooting or scoring, this Cornell transfer at least brings plenty of experience and a reputation for heady play. He's a bit of a 3-4 tweener, but has the strength to battle down low and the ability to step out to the perimeter. It's unknown whether he'll be a regular contributor or provide depth at practice.

F Cole Welle(Fr), 6'7, 204 lbs

A recruited walk-on from Aptos, he was the co-MVP of the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League. Although he was offered a volleyball scholarship at UC Santa Barbara, he chose to enroll at Cal and become a 4th generation Golden Bear. Extremely smart and athletic. Could develop into a nice player once he gets stronger.

C Kingsley Okoroh(Fr), 7'1, 254 lbs

Previously committed to Tennessee, he changed his commitment to Cal in order to follow Coach Martin. As with most freshman bigs, he's still raw and could use a lot of refinement with his footwork and court sense. But following the time-honored adage of "you can't coach size," he looks to have a Div-I body and will hopefully provide defense and rebounding off the bench. His commitment story is here.

A native of Derby, England, Okoroh played this past season for head coach Jai Steadman at Westwind Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, Ariz., where he averaged 16 points, 12 rebounds, six blocks and four assists per game. 
Okoroh is ranked as the fifth-best prospect in Europe by ESPN's recruiting services.


C Kameron Rooks(So), 7'0, 261 lbs
*Out for the year w/ injury


Guards:

G Jabari Bird(So), 6'6, 198 lbs, 8.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg

Already one of the most natural scorers to suit up for the blue and gold, there's a lot to like about Bird's upside. He was at his best last year when he put the team on his back and practically willed them to a victory over the upset-minded Oakland Grizzlies. Unfortunately, he was never quite the same player after being knocked out by an ankle injury. Reportedly, he's spent the off-season getting stronger.  At Pac-12 Media Day, Coach Martin mentioned that he was pushing Jabari out of his comfort zone to really pursue rebounds and to become a high level perimeter defender.  If Bird can learn to channel his athleticism on both ends, expect a big jump in his soph campaign.

G Jordan Mathews(So), 6'3, 205 lbs, 8.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg

Coach Martin has noted that Mathews never loses confidence in himself or his jumpshot.  And with good reason, because he might be the best pure shooter on the roster. Although he made his share of freshman mistakes last season, he showed off the ability to get really hot and put up a flurry of points. If he can develop better handles and improve his defense, he could play a big role as a scoring 6th man or even demand starter's minutes at the off-guard.

G Stephen Domingo(Jr), 6'7, 210 lb

*Sitting out via transfer rules

G Brandon Chauca(Fr), 5'9, 160 lb

Known for his shooting ability, he's unlikely to play a significant role this season. He'll have to get a lot stronger if he's going to be able to defend at the Pac-12 level.

F Roger Moute a Bidias(So), 6'6, 207 lbs

Although he played very little last season, he was chosen to play on an all-conference team that competed in China. His perimeter game is still evolving, but he's very long and athletic.  The coaching staff has mentioned that he's been one of the pleasant surprises in camp.  If he can provide consistent defense and rebounding, he might demand minutes due to our lack of experienced bigs.

G Sam Singer(So), 6'4, 204 lbs

Singer impressed in limited minutes last year with his poise and fierce competitiveness. Although he was a prolific scorer in high school, he seemed to deliberately adopt a more pass-first mindset during his 1st year. As our best decision-maker and passer, he's the favorite to succeed Cobbs as our starting point guard.  Coach Martin has called him "a 205-lb bulldog" who is very strong taking it to the basket and creating.

G Tyrone Wallace(Jr) 6'5, 200 lbs, 11.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.7 apg

Last year's designated X-factor will hope to be more consistent as one of the few upperclassmen on this squad. When Wallace was good, he was extremely productive. However, he was also capable of going very cold and making some head-scratching decisions. Although he tried to tweak his shot mechanics during the last off-season to be more consistent, his form regressed as the season went on. An improved jumper would do wonders for opening up his ability to slash and drive. Then again, Coach Martin has already mentioned that he wants Wallace attacking the rim instead of settling for the outside shot.  With the steadier Singer starting at point, Wallace will likely start on the wing and slide over to run the team when Singer is out.

G Nick Hamilton(Fr), 6'4, 185 lbs

An extremely strong student-athlete in high school, Hamilton received an academic scholarship and was accepted to 18 universities. Ultimately, he chose Cal over UCLA. On the court, he earned All-City second team and All-Area second team while representing The Westchester Comets.

Overall:

The calling card for Coach Martin's previous teams was effort. He's known for inspiring his players to play hard and to really buy in defensively. Although his motion offense might rely a lot on the wings, he's also shown that he'll adjust and feed the post when he has a dominant scorer. Our youth and relative lack of depth in the post will likely project us towards the low-middle of the conference. Monty consistently defied all expectations and had this team punching above its weight class. Can Martin do the same?