Reef: This is the fifth coaching change I've seen at Cal, and it's by far the one with the least continuity. Bozeman took over mid-season and had two lottery picks on the squad. Braun lost what people thought was the best talent on the team, but he inherited a group of tough (and it turns out really good) upperclassmen. Monty inherited what would eventually become the legendary class of 2010. And returners Ty, Jordan, Jabari, Kravish formed the heart of Cuonzo's first year squad.
This year is quite different. We return one...ONE...player out of the top 9 in minutes played: Kingsley. The only other player on the roster who got any meaningful time last year was Don.
On top of that...precise, consistent half-court defense was the heart of Cuonzo's coaching style, and Wyking intends to play a completely different style this year.
In light of all these changes, what are you looking for heading into our first glimpse of the team today?
LeonPowe: Normally, when an assistant from the previous coaching regime continues on, the standard in college basketball is a continuation of the same philosophy. However, as soon a Coach Wyking was hired, we've been hearing a lot about the "Louisville system" - meaning uptempo and high pressure, pressing defense. Which is a 180 degree from the ultra controlled continuation offense, and conservative, protect-the-rim defense.
Even without the ability to have his chosen recruits in place, I'd be really interested in seeing in Year 1, how effective the implementation of these tactics go. A lot can be shown about the leadership style of a first year coach, even through a difficult season in terms of W-L - as we're witnessing over at Memorial Stadium (shout-out to Cal football!).
The two players I'm keeping an eye on today and over the season will be Coleman and Roman Davis - who seem to be built in the mold of the players that Wyking is recruiting, albeit with less recruiting stars. Rangey, mobile, athletic wings - hopefully we can watch them and get an idea of what is in store for Jacobi Gordon and Matt Bradley next year (and Justice Sueing this year).
Reef: I agree that watching Don and Roman will be interesting. I've heard some talk that Don has picked up his all around game and become more of a leader. If he has added more tools to his natural ability to get to the hoop, he could surprise a lot of folks this year. Curiously, I've heard almost no buzz about Roman. This is a make or break year for him, so let's see if he's picked up anything this offseason.
I'm also, in no particular order, looking for:
-- McNeill's skill set and whether he's got PG tools
-- Juhwan's athleticism, and if his jumper is D1 ready
-- Marcus's offensive tools; can he post and can he step away and be a threat?
-- Any improvement to King's low post game?
-- Is Justice healthy?
-- What's this leadership buzz we've been hearing about Paris? Does he have a J?
-- We know Austin can shoot. Does he bring other D1 skills?
-- Can Grant play this year?
-- What's our press scheme? What's our half court O scheme?
Reef: Ok, so here we are after open practice. We got to see a little over an hour of skill drills followed by defensive drills. We did not, unfortunately, see much that would indicate anything about scheme. Let’s start off with your personnel bright spots. Who or what did you see that impressed you?
LeonPowe: There was a lot of chatter from insiders already about McNeil, but it was nice to see a guy that I couldn’t have identified on sight in person. Much bigger than I thought he’d be, looked smooth and in control. As Coach Jones alluded to, we really don’t know what we have until you smell the popcorn in the arena and the lights come on with freshmen.
Everyone was excited about Marcus Lee, and I felt like I was the lone hold out - but now I’m convinced. So athletic and bouncy. He might not be able to score outside of five feet (although he demonstrate a ten foot jumper) but he’s so fast up and down the court.
I’m not sure about the third, maybe it’s Cole Welle’s leadership. Coach Jones prior to the workout talked about Don Coleman’s ability to score, but his scoring ability doesn’t really translate in drills; maybe the third thing could be the hands-on coaching of Tim O’Toole and Theo. We’ll see how actual results turn out, but I think Coach Jones’ staff is pretty high level.
Reef: I agree that Darius McNeill was a big highlight today. He’s already got a D1 body and skill set. Tight, confident handle...really under control. His mid range J is consistent--compact shooting motion, jumps straight up with his body solidly under him, repeats the motion every time. His deep shot may still be a work in progress, but I didn’t see enough to judge. I also liked his natural defensive tendencies -- he moved his feet well and had a good sense of where to put himself in space to make things difficult for the offense.
Marcus’s athleticism was as advertised. He will add tremendous athleticism and will be worth the price of admission. He’s also clearly trying to lead, and he never stops moving. Literally never. We didn’t see anything that resembled game action, so I still don’t know how polished his moves are, but I’m excited to see what he’s been working on the last two years.
Other pluses for me included Paris Austin’s sense of command in every situation, Austin McCullough’s stroke, JHD’s pure athleticism, Don Coleman’s energy, and the nostalgia of watching Theo drop buckets.
Ok, what concerned you about our personnel?
LeonPowe: Like you pointed out (a lot) on Saturday, there isn't a lot of shooting on this team. We jokingly nicknamed the team the last two years under Cuonzo as "the gang that couldn't shoot straight" - but with Bird and Mathews shooting from outside, with Ty Wallace's ability to get to the rim, with Jaylen on fast breaks, and Ivan on anything aside from post-ups we still had a way to manufacture points. I am concerned about the ability of this team to score points; Coach Wyking in his pre-practice comments mentioned that we're going to be leaning on Don Coleman as a scorer. I'm more positive about Coleman's play last season than most - I view playing hard and fearless as valuable attributes. But I think even Don (and his brother - SHOUTOUT) would acknowledge that he's much more of a will player than a skill player. He's demonstrated one Pac-12 level skill (getting to the rim) but without the attention paid to Bird and Rabb, is the spacing going to be there? In just one half of practice, we only saw one guy who could be a plus shooter (freshman shooting guard Austin McCullough) - and I'm more optimistic about McNeil's at least decent looking jumper.
Reef: Similarly, I also wonder about where we are going to get points, and specifically where we are going to get outside shooting. McCullough has what looks like the best stroke on the team, but I wasn’t sure whether the rest of his game is D1 ready yet. For most of the drills he looked like a person practicing and learning a skill, instead of someone who is good at the skill. This was in passing, cutting, and defensive drills. How fast can he master the rest of the game? JHD is an athletic marvel, but he shoots the ball low and way out in front of his forehead, inconsistently. When Paris plays next year, I’m wondering whether he method of picking up his jumper up in front of him will translate into a slow release, and whether his shooting numbers will be better than his track record. Because we’re going uptempo, those guys, along with Coleman, will get more buckets at the hole than we’ve been used to seeing, but in half court sets in the modern game you need shooters to space the floor. I’m not sure where ours are.
In addition, I didn’t see enough of Kingsley to say this with conviction, but my sense is we already know what we’re getting with him, and it’s roughly similar to what we’ve gotten in the past. I wish I could say Roman Davis looks improved, but if he’s worked on his game, it was not in evidence today.
[Note: Justice Sueing and Deschon Winston did not practice today, so we didn't’ get a look at their game. Theoretically, some of the shooting (and certainly some of the scoring) will come from them.]
I was also worried about the gap between our length and quickness, which is considerable, versus our commitment to defense. There were a LOT of guys struggling to stay active, communicate, and get into proper positions on defense. There were a lot of struggles with defensive concepts. McNeill, Lee, and, as you pointed out, Cole Welle, looked good to me on defense. That’s not enough.
Ok, I know we didn’t see as much schematically as we’d have liked, but what is your overall take going into the season?
LeonPowe:I feel like I’ve been typing this a lot (a couple of Dykes seasons and Wilcox’s season), and maybe it’s your influence, but this is about process and implementation instead of results. Coach Jones himself said this season should be judged about progression and seeing if we end up in a better place than we do at the start of the season. So we’ll be looking at how those 6 freshmen improve over the season, what does the offense look like? How much havoc are we getting out of the press - and what does the offense look like (we were kicked out of practice after watching two or three sets, mainly very basic FLEX options and 1-4 options. We did get a sense that a lot of offense is going to start from the elbow - with KO and Marcus Lee being the initiators - so it’ll be interesting to see what that’s like.
Finally, I’ll be watching a lot of JHD and Justice Sueing - because we can already see the kind of players Coach Jones is recruiting - big dudes with long arms who are athletic, with those two and then Matt Bradley and Jacobi Gordon committed, watching those two freshman should give us an idea of what the Men’s Basketball program will look like in 2 seasons.
Reef: Yeah, “The Process” has turned into a meme, but the truth is process is what builds basketball teams. Wyking talked about building an exciting style designed to throw multiple defensive looks at opponents for the whole 94 feet. You could see him kind of salivating as he discussed changing pressure schemes, before dropping into complex zone looks. That kind of stuff is exciting, but it’s also HARD. Heck, it’s hard to adjust to D1 basketball, let alone learn the basics of a new scheme and new teammates, even before you start talking about rotating through multiple schemes.
A great example of that was in a half court defensive drill, we saw the coaches stop multiple times and emphasize active hands. Swiping at the ball and getting hands in the passing lanes. We got excited because getting turnovers with hand activity is pretty far from Cuonzoball. But it’s also something that could take years to get good at. You don’t just flip a switch and master an entirely new style of play. You have to invest in...the process.
So if I’m looking at it glass half empty, in the brief glimpses we saw, I noticed a LOT of guys who were still struggling to figure out what they need to do in a new system. But if I’m glass half full, I saw competent coaches constructing the foundation from scratch. I saw high energy drills, from minute 1, designed to acclimate our guys to being active and energetic. I saw a commitment to building something the right way. We have learned in football this year that strong fundamentals lead to good results. Basketball is taking the same approach, and if they’re anywhere near as successful, this will be a fun year.
Finally, Wyking has emphasized repeatedly that we will depend a great deal on our veterans. For not only how to play on the court, but how to learn off the court. What gave me hope was those guys: Marcus Lee, Don Coleman, Kingsley Okoroh, Paris Austin, Cole Welle, Nick Hamilton...they were they guys who didn’t seem lost. They were the guys who were doing what the coaches were asking.
And they’re the guys who are going to have to lead the way.
I’m excited to see more than the very brief glimpse we got. Three more weeks. Let’s do this.