The 2014-15 version of the California Golden Bear men's basketball team opened their non-conference season, and the preliminary rounds of the 2K Classic, with a resounding 91-57 victory over the SWAC's Alcorn State Braves.
The Bears starting five remained the same as the exhibition season, with Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews, and Jabari Bird sharing the backcourt and David Kravish and Christian Behrens holding down the frontcourt. This group blistered the Braves with a scorching hot start fueled by a relentless commitment to uptempo basketball. The Bears ran at every opportunity -- primarily off of turnovers and rebounds -- and early in the game these opportunities inevitably led to strong finishes at the rim or wide open three point looks.
To illustrate the commitment to uptempo offense, the first seven buckets of the Cuonzo Martin era were:
a Jordan Mathews three with :31 on the shot clock
a David Kravish dunk with :32 on the shot clock
a Tyrone Wallace reverse layup with :30 on the shot clock
a Jordan Mathews three with :18 on the shot clock
a Jabari Bird three with :29 on the shot clock
a Jordan Mathews layup with :32 on the shot clock
a Jabari Bird dunk with :32 on the shot clock
Sometimes people misinterpret what controlling tempo means, but here's some expert analysis: that was an example of playing REALLY fast.
By the time this flurry was over Alcorn State had called their second timeout at the 14:55 mark and Cal was up 17-2. On the other side of the floor, Alcorn State was producing very little against a solid Bear defense. Alcorn State star LeAntwan Luckett forced three poor looks in the early going, and his team was playing a three option offense: (1) turn the ball over; (2) stand around; or (3) force up a bad one-on-one shot. Occasionally they raised the complexity and combined two of those options. The Bears newfound commitment to man to man defense was not tested during this critical period in the game. The Braves did not have anyone capable of blowing by perimeter defenders, and since they also refused to pass the ball, they had a difficult time generating anything resembling a good look at the basket.
By the time the game reached the first TV timeout at 14:08, the lead was 19-2 and the game was for all intents and purposes over. Cuonzo inserted Dwight Tarwater and Kingsley Okoroh into the frontcourt, and Sam Singer in at the point guard. Alcorn State switched to a zone. These changes had a mild effect on the tempo, but not on the momentum of the game. Cal continued its crisp ball movement; Alcorn State continued to struggle to find quality looks, and although they managed to briefly cut the lead to 15, that was the closest they would get to the Bears. Back to back Tarwater threes during the 14th minute of the first half extended the lead to 22. The Braves would get no closer than 16, the halftime lead was 18, and the Bears led by 20+ for most of the second half.
While the opponent was not the toughest the Bears will see this year, and may not even have been tougher than the exhibition opponents, the Bears' level of play was noticeably higher than we have seen to date. The reportedly tough, intense practices and excited players seem to be paying early dividends on the court.
The Bears shot 37-71 (52.1%) with four misses from walk-ons. Tyrone Wallace was magnificent, getting to the basket at will to shoot a gaudy 9-15 and deliver a game high 22 points. Jordan Mathews 7-10 shooting, including 4-6 3p, was a perfect complement to Wallace. Jabari Bird and David Kravish had quietly solid nights, Bird adding 9 assists to his 12 points while finishing at the rim with high level moves we had not seen in the exhibition season.
Probably the most pleasant surprise: I think we may soon be able to officially declare Dwight Tarwater a stretch 4. His 3-6 3p shooting was not consistent with prior data, which indicate he is a poor shooter, but it appears Cuonzo has seen something he likes in the big man's stroke. With an offense predicated on drive and kick, and a lack of front court depth, having a sturdy forward who can also contribute deep shooting would be invaluable to this team.
More importantly, under Coach Martin the Bears are displaying a persistent commitment to high efficiency shot selection. Layups, postups, and open three point shots are the highest value shots in basketball. All but a very small handful of the Bears shots fell into one of these three categories. In addition, there is a higher likelihood those shots will drop when they are made easier as a result of strong ball movement. 26 of the Bears' 37 FGs were assisted, and to my naked eye the quality of court awareness and passing was several levels higher than in previous games.
The majority of defensive possessions were played in Cuonzo's base man to man. The energy was medium-high, but it's hard to determine whether this was just the result of an inept opponent. The execution was passable. Bird, Mathews, and Tarwater were all guilty of minor lapses, but it's hard to be perfect in 30 point blowouts. The Bears also briefly showed a number of different looks: a ¾ court press that did not seem to bother the Braves, and a 2-3 zone that seemed to show weakness both on the wing and at the rim. On the boards, Cal shared the rebounding load: Wallace with a monster 10, Kravish 8, Behrens 4, and Bird/Tarwater 3. Early concern about rebounding persists, however: the Bears rebounded 67% of the Braves' missed shots, compared to their average of 72% last year.
David Kravish is a block machine. Five tonight.
Christian Behrens looked as agile and athletic as I've seen him in a Cal uniform. He is getting increasingly comfortable.
Sam Singer continues to do a lot of important things exceptionally well, but his 0-3 on open 3p looks is a concern.
Brandon Chauca with glasses is Nam Le's doppelganger.