NEW YORK, NY - The Cuonzo Martin era is starting with a big thunderous bang. While many Cal fans may be focusing their attention on the Big Game on Saturday, Curonzo Martin's team made sure that you noticed them on Thursday night. In the World's Most Famous arena against a mostly hostile crowd on national TV (no less), the Golden Bears not only defeated the Syracuse Orange, they looked quite good in doing so while still showing plenty of room for growth.
Is it too early to call this a signature win for Cuonzo Martin? The Bears surely opened a bunch of eyes playing in the spotlight that is Madison Square Garden. Cal also played at a fast pace, which no doubt looks attractive to any potential recruit watching this game on TV. In a tournament sponsored by a video game, the Bears played like a video game at the 2K Classic on Thursday night.
YOU TRYNA TELL ME CAL CAN STILL GET BACK IN THIS? pic.twitter.com/0OGicVJgGH— Nam Le (@AGuyNamedNam) November 21, 2014
The Golden Bears rarely trailed in the first half, even though both sides were struggling offensively by trading turnovers and misses. With 3:45 left in the first half, the Bears merely had a 22-20 lead. Then the Bears finally caught fire. The famous Syracuse Zone, played by a mostly inexperienced Orange team unlike the past two seasons, had allowed the Bears some good looks all game. All of a sudden, the Bears are finally began to capitalize on them. David Kravish of all people started the barrage of 3's. He was followed by Bird, then Tarwater, then Bird. Before you knew it, the Bears were up by 12 at the half.
The second half started with more Syracuse futility. A series of offensive fouls allowed the Bears to open up the lead even more in the first 5 minutes to go up by 19. Syracuse finally found a bit of an answer, but the closest that they got to was within 12. Jordan Mathews took over the game in the 2nd half, scoring 20 of his game high 22 points in that half.
Mathews found ways to finish around the rim while also making a couple of three-pointers, including the dagger with a hand in his face with 3:53 left to push the lead back up to 17.
The most insane stat of the game may be the Bears' 22 assists on 26 field goals. Coach Cuonzo Martin lauded his team for their unselfish play and their desire to make each other look good.
Jabari Bird made 4 of 5 three-pointers on the game and had 16 points, yet it is possibly his misses, on a couple of contested dunk attempts that might be the most telling of how good the Bears may become. The Bears as a team actually missed a few dunks in this game. Just wait until the Bears start making those easy ones! It might be too early to think about this, but Jabari Bird showing that he needs to get stronger may mean that he will stay at Cal for longer.
Bears were effectively running the high post to attack the zone, lead by David Kravish. Jordan Mathews said, "guys like David (Kravish), Dwight (Tarwater), Kingsley (Okoroh), and Christian (Bherens) are great passers. We thought that was our main point where we could affect the zone and it worked." On that front, Boeheim said the Bears had "good players" to run that strategy. Kravish finished with 12 points and 9 boards. He moves closer to Michael "Yogi" Stewart's Cal record in blocks by tallying 3 more in this game. Against the talented Syracuse freshman in Chris McCullough, Kravish schooled the youngster on a few occasions.
Although they did not stand out in the boxscore, I thought Christian Behrens and Kingsley Okoroh had a great game. Okoroh had a few key rebounds in the first half and was able to get open inside the post for easy buckets. Behrens eased my pregame concern about him being able to play against a power conference opponent.
In the post game Boeheim blamed the bulk of the Syracuse problem on their ineffective offense. Freshman Kaleb Joseph was contained by the Bears, having just 3 assists to 4 turnovers. By holding the Orange to just 35.9% shooting for the game (including just 29% in the first half), the Bears did not allow Syracuse to play their zone. The good news here is that Syracuse is talented enough to play a lot better as the season goes on. This win will mostly likely be against a top 50 RPI opponent. With a Hall of Fame coach in Boeheim, I don't expect the Orange to have a bad year despite their youth. The Bears may have just got a huge huge boost for their NCAA resume, even though we are obviously only 3 games into the season.
Bears attacked the now somewhat familiar Syracuse zone with plenty of aggression. Jabari Bird said, "at first we were a little stagnant. At first it's a little tough but once we hit a few jump shots our confidence increased and we started making plays on both ends of the court."
So it's on to a date with the Texas Longhorns tomorrow. The Bears may not have played the Longhorns that much on the basketball court, but I am sure Cal fans would love nothing more than to beat that school, even if Mack Brown has nothing to do with this team.
I'm very much looking forward to do this again. Okay, time to catch a bus!