California remained undefeated under new men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, as the Golden Bears demolished the Kennesaw State Owls, 93-59. In a game that started off with both teams struggling to find a rhythm, the Bears used a 16-3 run late in the first half to open up a 24 point lead and they never looked back, improving their record to 2-0 on the young season.
The Bears sent out their usual starting five of Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews, Jabari Bird, Christian Behrens, and David Kravish. Kennesaw State countered with a team that was much better prepared than Alcorn State had been a couple nights earlier. The Owls were ready for the Bears in transition, bypassing offensive rebounding opportunities to send four or five players back on most Cal breaks. They were also prepared for the Bears to attack the basket, collapsing multiple players into the lane, and then rotating quickly back out to the three point line. As a result, Cal struggled early on finding transition opportunities and with finishing in the lane or finding the open man when the lane was completely clogged. In the first 13 minutes of the game Cal shot only 42% -- substandard against a weak opponent.
While Cal did not find their legs early offensively, Kennesaw State was struggling mightily on the opposite end. They started with a solid game plan to test the Bears' on-ball defenders with a series of ball screens, and they did manage to drive by the initial defender on many early possessions. However, Cuonzo Martin preaches intensity and hustle, and true to form the Cal help defense, even when slightly out of position, managed to continually scramble to contest the Owls' shots. The Owls struggled to convert contested looks, and their shooting never rose above 25% in the first half. Despite their offensive struggles, the Bears led 20-9 at the 7:08 TV timeout.
Then, Cal broke their huddle and generated a flurry that may become a trademark of this quick, athletic team. The defense kicked up a notch and the spacing and ball movement started looking like what we saw on Friday night. A nice Kingsley Okoroh drop step dunk got the crowd buzzing, and then a Dwight Tarwater wide open three (off a great pass from Wallace out of a double team) got them on their feet. In the critical four minute sequence of the game, the tempo increased, the ball moved rapidly, and the correct player shot the basketball. A Sam Singer steal led to a Mathews fast break layup, and suddenly at the 3:31 TV timeout Cal's lead was 34-12 and the game was over. By halftime the Bears led by 26, and the second half was an opportunity to practice for Syracuse.
The Bears struggled early to deal with different looks than they had seen early in the season. Kennesaw State obviously knew that the first option has been Tyrone Wallace coming off a ball screen and driving to the basket, and they took great pains to make Cal look elsewhere. This included doubling Wallace early in the possession. Tyrone looked a little lost for several minutes, and was pulled in favor of Sam Singer only 3:59 into the game. When he came back in he had a much better idea how to attack the Owls, passing quickly out of double teams. He went on to have a solid floor game. However, he did struggle with ball handling a number of times, leading to four turnovers. This will be something to keep an eye on when he runs the point against better defenders.
Overall the Bears put on a strong offensive display, shooting 60% including 7-12 from 3p range and assisting on 18 of 35 buckets. While they were forced to take more mid-range shots than they did on Friday, the emphasis was still on transition looks, drives to the basket, post-ups and open threes. It will be interesting to see whether they are able to get those same looks against the Syracuse zone.
Jabari Bird had a strong night, shooting 7-10 with 15 points and 7 rebounds. Early on he seemed to want to take the team on his back, and hoisted some long jumpers early in the shot clock. Most of them happened to go down, so it's hard to complain, but there's a fine line between being the guy who can carry the team when it's having a little trouble, and being the guy who takes the team out of its offense with poor shot selection. I don't think Jabari quite crossed that line tonight, but this will be another thing to keep an eye on against better opponents. Overall, however, he is starting to live up to his vast offensive potential, which should bode well for the Bears as the season goes on.
Of some concern was David Kravish's night. I would have thought he'd be our strongest player in high pick and rolls, but he's not utilized up there as often as I'd expect, and doesn't seem particularly comfortable when he is. He therefore didn't get the ball much, didn't finish a few buckets he typically makes, and wasn't much of a presence on the boards, finishing with only one rebound. He did open the game with a three point make, a new feature of his game that should help stretch defenses this year. One game is, well, only one game, but the Bears will almost certainly need David to show up bigtime in New York.
After a period of adjustment to the Owls' multiple ball screens, the Bears' defense was superb, holding the Owls to 35% shooting and below 25% when the game was in any doubt. The Bears' intensity was higher than Friday night, and once they settled into a pattern of help and recovery, Kennesaw State had trouble getting clean looks for most of the first half. The intensity waned somewhat in the second half, as one might expect with a 30 point lead. The Owl's junior wing Nigel Pruitt got a lot of good looks, both from the perimeter and going to the basket. I'm sure Cuonzo will have something to say about that in practice, but as a fan I didn't have a big problem with it.
The Bears were very good on the boards, gathering in 77% of the Owls' missed shots. With David Kravish having a quiet rebounding day, the entire backcourt stepped up to board: Wallace 9, Bird 7, and Mathews 7. In addition, all of the guards have shown an excellent ability to take a board and push the ball quickly up court for a good look or, in some instances, throw a long outlet pass (an option we did not utilize last year). Rebounding on this team is going to have to be a team effort, so it was a very good sign that the Bears got contributions from the entire backcourt.
Cuonzo's rotation has been nine deep so far this season. I wonder whether that will change next week.
Kevin O'Neill was not happy with Wallace, who finished with a Scottie Pippen-esque 5-9, 17 pts, 9 rebs, 7 asts. That tells you all you need to know about Kevin O'Neill.
Okoroh showed two different, really nice post moves. On the other hand, Tarwater went into the post a number of times and was overmatched. Stay tuned to see how this develops over the course of the early season.
Next up is Syracuse in Madison Square Garden. We don't really know anything about this California team yet, but we will after the next couple games.