Saturday, October 4, marked the public, on-court unveiling of the Cuonzo Martin era. I celebrated the occasion by attending the open practice with LeonPowe, atomsareenough, and our fearless leader Twist. This was only the second practice for the men's basketball team, period, so I took everything I observed with a grain of salt, but there was enough on display to keep us hoops junkies content for a few weeks until the first exhibition game. (Shameless plug: free admission on October 31.)
The atmosphere in Haas was businesslike, which I think reflected the man running the practice. Other than a DJ in a Hawaiian shirt, there was very little in the way of hype or hoopla. The team was shooting around a few minutes before practice. When practice started there was no official welcome, no speeches, the team simply stretched and began running drills. Cuonzo was wearing a microphone, and after a few footwork drills and some running he huddled the team and gave a short talk. I got the sense it was not for our benefit -- that this is the way he always runs practice. In his firm, steady bass, he talked briefly about hard work and not making excuses.
There were multiple reports out of Tennessee that the fan base was not happy that Cuonzo did not go out of his way to please the boosters or the general public. I got a sense of where these complaints came from. In his short time at Cal, my observation is Cuonzo understands and is grateful for Cal's basketball fans, but he is not a showman. He does not go out of his way to draw attention to himself. He is a basketball coach, and it was clear on Saturday that this was his priority. Whether fans will be happy with this is a question of stylistic preference, but I personally liked his focus.
Throughout practice, Cuonzo was a vigorous, persistent presence. He did not run around and he did not yell, but he somehow seemed to be in the middle of every drill, coaching, coaching, coaching. True to his reputation, his emphasis was on sound fundamentals and effort. The majority of his comments were directed toward footwork and positioning, while his assistants seemed to be coaching what little scheme work there was. His favorite phrase was "do it again." The most excited he got was for a defensive stop that lasted at least 30 seconds without allowing an entry pass or penetration.
Two drills gave us some insight into Cuonzo's base offense. They were both looks I've seen in Tennessee's offense the last couple years. The first involved the motion principles that dominated Tennessee's sets. The point guard initiated the offense up top, by passing to a wing on either side. A big man simultaneously came up from the baseline to set screens for cutters. The wing becomes the primary decision maker in this set, with multiple dribble or pass options.
A variation on this set was emphasized in a separate drill. The big man came up and set a ball screen, initiating a high pick and roll. The team then practiced multiple options from this first look, including the big rolling to the basket, a wing cutting to the basket, or the ball handler passing opposite for a corner three.
While there is a limited amount to be gleaned from an early practice, one thing that seems clear from watching past Cuonzo offenses and watching the drills on Saturday, is that the wings will have a tremendous amount of decision making responsibility within this offense. Our wings are abundantly talented, so this is perhaps a good sign. On the other hand, our wings are young and have struggled with decision making in the past. How quickly they adjust to their role within this offense will be a big factor in whether this team can be offensively successful this year.
There were also two defensive drills, both of which were consistent with Cuonzo's reputation for emphasizing high-intensity. In a half-court 4 on 4 drill, he stressed continuous, rapid help and recovery on the perimeter. This was conducted at full speed and was the longest drill of the day. In addition, in a full-court 4 on 4 drill, with one defender trailing, Cuonzo emphasized stopping the ball, picking up cutters, and trying to prevent easy passes into the paint. Most tellingly, while he was patient coaching offensive sets, he seemed much less patient, or at least far more demanding, teaching defensive fundamentals. His voice volume went up three levels, and he insisted on much more repetition. This is clearly a coach who loves defense.
In no particular order, I observed the following:
Jabari Bird has put on some muscle. He's still slim, but he doesn't look slight anymore. He seems to have worked on his offensive repertoire, especially when he drives. I think the game has slowed down for him. On several occasions he adjusted after he got into the paint, rather than making up his mind before he started his move. His defense, however, continues to be problematic. He did not hustle back on fast break drills. I watched him twice in the halfcourt defensive drill. Once he got beat off the dribble and the next time he got beat back door.
Christian Behrens seems more agile, and is playing without a knee brace.
Roger Moute a Bidias is going to be a wing, not a post. He played entirely on the perimeter, and during shooting drills was working 15+ feet out. His shot and handle are still works in progress, but his D seems to have gotten better and he's terrifically athletic, with long arms.
Tyrone Wallace may have grown an inch or two. He has added some moves to the basket, but his shot continues to be a concern. More importantly, I did not get a chance to observe his decision making, which was the primary obstacle separating him from star status last year.
Brandon Chauca is not ready to play. He was not as quick as I imagined, his handle was not great for a small PG, and his shot was inconsistent.
Kingsley Okoroh already has a college basketball body -- trim but solid. He should be able to bang a little inside, but his footwork and offensive skillset are severely limited right now.
Dwight Tarwater will be able to give some fouls.
Sam Singer is just a straight-up basketball player. He hustles, has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and feels like a leader.
We are going to love Stephen Domingo. His jumper is still as smooth as it was in high school, but his handle is miles better and is probably as good as anyone's on the team. He seems to have improved his athleticism. He showed way more defensive awareness and effort than he displayed in high school. He oozes talent...possibly more than Jabari. I wish he could play this year.