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Basketball Season Preview, Part 1: A Third Cuonzo Martin Reinvention?

The best coaches in college basketball have learned how to thrive despite near annual roster turnover. In 2016-17, we will learn a bit more about how well Cuonzo Martin can handle his own personnel changes.

NCAA Basketball: PAC-12 Conference Tournament-Oregon State vs California Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This is Part 1 of a . . . well, let’s just go with multi-part preview of 2016-17 Cal men’s basketball. Future articles will examine the roster in more detail and look at where Cal fits into the Pac-12.

Stability vs. change. A critical struggle in college sports, and perhaps even more so in college basketball, where frequent early draft entrants and the ‘transfer epidemic’ have created larger year-to-year instability than ever before.

Some programs build success through stability. Think Bo Ryan at Wisconsin or Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Others try for that stability and fail, whether through lack of talent or an inability to innovate. Think Johnny Dawkins at Stanfurd, who presided over a remarkably stable tenure of inertia and mediocrity.

Other programs are felled by an inability to navigate the quickly changing landscape of college basketball. Ben Howland fell by the wayside because he struggled to integrate one and done level talent into his particular system. Lorenzo Romar is busy struggling to maintain continuity thanks to a revolving door of one and dones and transfers. Even our own Mike Montgomery had a tough time adapting when he returned to a sport that had very much changed since his dominant days in Palo Alto.

Meanwhile, other coaches thrive in the chaos of constant roster turnover. Say what you will about his ability to discern character - Dana Altman has kept Oregon remarkably competitive with a rotating cast of mercenaries and reclamation projects. Sean Miller has returned Arizona to national prominence despite a slew of early entries.

This year, we start to learn a little bit more about Cuonzo Martin’s ability to navigate the same waters.

His first year in Berkeley was a forced reinvention. Nearly any coaching transition means changes in style and substance, and those changes were compounded in what would have likely been a rebuilding year anyway following the departures of Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon. Between the transition costs of the coaching change and a lack of depth and high end talent, Cal struggled.

2015 was another reinvention. A necessary reinvention because of how ugly the 2014 season was, and a necessary reinvention because Cal suddenly had two top 10 freshmen. It was a success, as Cal jumped more than 100 places in adjusted offensive efficiency and 50 spots in adjusted defensive efficiency. The result was an undefeated home schedule and the highest NCAA seed in program history.

That takes us to 2016. Which Bears took on the biggest offensive burden in 2015?

  1. Jaylen Brown, 31.2% of possessions
  2. Tyrone Wallace, 27.9% of possessions
  3. Ivan Rabb, 20.6% of possessions
  4. Jordan Mathews, 20.1% of possessions

Brown, Wallace, and Mathews are gone. Only Ty had to leave, but Cal is as much subject to the new era of player movement as everybody else. As a result, the Bears are going to be reinvented again, because 3 of their 4 most influential players aren’t on the team anymore.

There are reasons to be skeptical of Cal’s ability to absorb that level of attrition. By percentage of possessions used, Jaylen and Ty were 1st and 2nd in the entire Pac-12. Meanwhile, Jordan Mathews was simply the best shooter in the league, a dead eye that took on a large volume of the offense. Losing those players means imposed change, which means uncertainty.

On the other hand, there are players who might be able to replace that offensive burden. Charlie Moore is Cal’s most decorated point guard recruit in quite some time and has passing skills that we haven’t really seen in Cuonzo’s offense thus far. Meanwhile, Grant Mullins was one of the single most efficient offensive players in the country last year with an assist rate that is excellent for the off-guard position he’s going to play in his one year at Cal. The Bears will almost certainly be a better passing team than either of the last two seasons.

And this ignores what Cal has back - namely, Ivan Rabb and the core of the best defense in the Pac-12 last year. Ivan Rabb speaks for himself, but it’s worth remembering that Cal’s defense was successful because of the interior combination of Rabb, Kameron Rooks, and Kingsley Okoroh. Cal’s interior defense and their collective ability to hold teams to low 2 point shooting is the foundation upon which everything else is built.

There’s also the usual unknowns - what might Cal get from less heralded players who could parlay niche roles into larger contributions? Can Don Coleman provide a spark off the bench? Roman Davis got solid reviews from practice, but will that translate to on-court production? Can Stephen Domingo build his confidence so that his obvious talent translates to live games? Cal doesn’t necessary need positive answers to these questions, but every unexpected plus adds to what the Bears might be able to achieve.

That’s the mix that Cuonzo has to manage - established players with solid roles, newcomers with established college production or high end high school resumes, and returning players who might be poised for greater impact. If he finds the right mix, this team could match or even exceed the achievements of last year. If he can’t, fans might end up ruing Cal’s inability to maximize their time with a truly transcendent Bear on the roster.

We start getting our answers in just four short weeks.