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Cal MBB Preview: Bears on their first real road game travel across to Bay Bridge to face the USF Dons

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No more Frankie Ferrari, so no more popcorn eating on the sidelines

NCAA Basketball: San Francisco at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Our dear friend Ryan Gorcey, formerly of bearterritory.net and the San Francisco Examiner, took the time to answer some questions about the Dons for us.

What has changed since Kyle Smith’s departure? Is the team and program still looking for an identity under new leadership?

If anything, this program is even better. I detailed in my profile of new head coach Todd Golden (https://www.sfexaminer.com/sports/new-usf-basketball-head-coach-todd-golden-has-sean-mcvay-quality/) why he was the logical choice to succeed Smith. AD Joan McDermott knew she was hiring Golden to succeed Smith even when Smith was just interviewing for the Wazzu job. Some have characterized it as a panic hire, but it was the exact opposite. They had the right guy in-house, so why wait?

Golden was the right hire at the right time. He blends a lot of what he learned under Smith with what he’s learned under Bruce Pearl. He’s much less of a controlling personality than Smith (which is not to say anything bad about Smith; I just think Golden is a lot more open to improvisation both on and off the court), and he’s more defensive-minded.

Ironically enough, that means the Dons are better offensively. Golden’s focus on defense (he was Smith’s defensive coordinator for a season at Columbia, and all three in San Francisco) and his more open coaching style allows Kevin Hovde more free reign to coordinate the offense, and Golden’s defensive philosophy generates a lot of transition offense, which allows creators like Jamaree Bouyea and Charles Minlend the space to do their thing.

This team has a very clear identity, and there are some around the program who figure they’re going to need a new coach again in three years, because Golden will either get a Power 5 job, or he’ll be an assistant in the NBA.

The Dons had some key contributors from last year move on, who has stepped up into those roles?

Honestly, the departure of Frankie Ferrari, while certainly a big one, has allowed San Francisco to grow. Ferrari was the offense last season. Everyone else was secondary, and for good reason. That, however, I think stunted the growth of a guy like Minlend, who would always seem to force up bad shots after Ferrari drove and kicked, or when Ferrari was bottled up and had to pass out to Minlend or Jordan Ratinho.

Now, you’re seeing Jimbo Lull really come into his own as a low-post presence (the seven-footer has even started knocking down some 3-pointers), Minlend is getting set with time to shoot and can create for himself off the dribble and, I think most importantly, Jamaree Bouyea has really come out of his shell, both on the court and off.

Last season, Bouyea certainly flashed some ability and dynamism, but he was a quiet and unassuming backup for Ferrari. Now, you can tell that the team belongs to him and Minlend. They’re the two biggest personalities on the team, and they work very well off of one another. That’s not to say their presence is an overwhelming one; on the contrary: They’re well-loved and their gregariousness helps fuel that kind of improvisational basketball jazz I was talking about earlier.

The uptick in offense from Minlend, Lull and Bouyea (not to mention sixth man Khalil Shabazz, the Central Washington transfer who should have been a Power 5 guy coming out of high school) has allowed the Dons to incorporate freshman Josh Kunen, who does all the little things that don’t show up on a scoresheet, but still have a major impact on the game, particularly on the defensive end.

The Dons have started off hot, winning 7 straight before dropping a game to Hawaii in Hawaii. What’s the season outlook for the Dons? Has it changed due to the hot start?

I think there were just a few people who figured USF would get off to a hot start, and I was one of them. I really believe in Golden’s philosophy, mainly because I’ve seen him pick the brains of Warriors coaches during their run to the Finals. That said a lot to me about where his head was at.

Like Golden State at its peak, you can also tell this group is having so much fun on the court that it’s hard to pick against them.

Again, like the Warriors of old, inside all that fun is still a great deal of focus and self-criticism, which is another feature of Golden’s style. The coaches don’t just self-scout their players; they self-scout each other, after every practice and after every game. That self-critical approach bleeds into the players themselves, and I’ve seen them diagnose their shortcomings in real time. It’s really impressive. I’m not saying this is a Tournament team right now, but I think it’d be tough to count them out next season.

What has made Jamaree Bouyea and Charles Minlend so effective to start the year?

I kind of gave that away earlier, but I’ll put a finer point on it: Freedom.

Frankie Ferrari was a tremendous force on offense, and Kyle Smith trusted him completely. The offense boiled down to ‘Whatever Frankie can get, and if he can’t, whatever scraps are left,’ and when teams cinched down on Ferrari, the Dons played some ugly offensive basketball, with a lot of forced shots.

Ratinho’s 3-point sniping and Minlend’s driving saved them in a lot of instances, but it certainly wasn’t sustainable, as we saw late in the season when Ferrari took ill and was playing on a bad leg.

Ferrari was also limited defensively. Scrappiness will only get you as far as your arms will reach.

Without him, and inside of Golden’s more free-flowing system (there’s a lot of Steve Kerr’s motion offense in there if you look hard enough), you have a pair of dynamic athletes who can be elite defensively, and that defense generates a suddenness on offense. Both Minlend and Bouyea can get out and run, and because there isn’t the crutch that was Frankie Ferrari, they’re free to create, distribute, drive and pull up, and do it all in transition as well as they do it in the half court.

Last one for you being a Cal alum and formerly on the Cal beat. Your take on the Bears program under the direction of Mark Fox.

It’s certainly better than it was under Wyking Jones, who had the thinnest skin of any coach I’ve dealt with, in high school, college or the pro ranks, and was by far the least qualified.

I’ve told this story for a few years now, but never publicly. My last season covering Cal for BearTerritory, I scheduled a four-day stay in Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament, knowing the Bears would get smashed and I’d get a nice little vacation. Boy, did they prove me right.

Well, after Cal narrowly avoided its ninth loss of the season by 20 or more points because of Derek King’s corner 3-pointer against Stanford’s third string, I posted that the Bears had lost more games by 20 or more points that season than any team in program history. I tweeted that out, and added it to my story after way too much research. I got a text at 11:48 p.m. that night from Jones, essentially saying that I was out to hurt the program by tweeting ... facts, I guess?

I didn’t respond. I offered him a life preserver a few weeks later when in a post-season post-mortem with other reporters. I asked him if he ever just ignored social media at any point during a trying season, just to get down to the matter of building the program. He said he kept note of everyone who spoke negatively about the program, and said they wouldn’t be allowed on the bandwagon once things got good. (Narrator: Things did not get good).

Moving along, Mark Fox seems like he’s got things headed in the right direction, which, as an alum, is great to see. He’s doing, in a sense, what Randy Bennett has done at St. Mary’s, which is to say that he’s recruiting internationally and recruiting to the school’s reputation, rather than trying to joust with the big boys for the four- and five-star guys. I think that’s wise.

The program doesn’t have a truly star-studded history (yeah, you have the Jason Kidds and the Jaylen Browns and Ivan Rabbs of the world, but no real year-in-year-out consistency of stars), and if you can get one, once in a blue moon, you should have a program already built that a star can take to the next level (Brown and Rabb wouldn’t have worked without Bird and Wallace). That’s a much more sustainable model than the strategy of throwing a bunch of raw three-star athletes together and hoping for the best without much actual coaching.

From what I’ve been able to tell from afar, there’s also actually (GASP!) a cohesive offensive system, which the Bears didn’t even really have under Cuonzo Martin, as much as I loved the guy (class act, all the way; he called me after he took the Mizzou job to thank me for covering the team fairly and honestly).

So, yeah, things are looking up, but it may take a year or two for Cal to be maybe not a contender, but a nice, upper-half-of-the-conference player.