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A year later, Cal has a different team and something to prove

October 7, 2016 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

Twelve months ago, the anticipation was building. There was plenty of buzz. Plenty of people wondered if the Pac-12 was going to have a new team at the top and carrying the flag. The questions that followed were only natural.

Could California upend teams like Arizona, Utah and Oregon that had been carrying the flag for the conference of late and even be a team to make a deep run in March? Were the Golden Bears at the beginning of something early in Cuonzo Martin’s tenure after getting two McDonald’s All-Americans to come there, including one whom virtually no one thought they had a shot at landing?

It’s almost hard to believe that now, really. And that’s part of the challenge this program faces as 2016-17 beckons.

The Golden Bears at times looked the part of Pac-12 contender in 2015-16. They were a terrific defensive team and were in the mix in a loaded, well-balanced Pac-12. At other times, they looked like a pretender, like when they whiffed on their best chances for quality wins in non-conference as well as on the road. Cal didn’t win a road game until February 18 at Washington State, but turned a corner as they won three of their final four road games.

But the season did not end well. An assistant coach was fired before the NCAA Tournament amid allegations of sexual harassment, then leading scorer and assist man Tyrone Wallace broke his wrist in practice. As if that wasn’t enough, Jabari Bird got back spasms just as their opener against Hawaii was to tip. With all of that adversity, as well as the effects of being without two starting guards, the Golden Bears became one of a number of big upset victims and the season ended just like that.

Cal knew they would lose Wallace, a senior last season. It wasn’t a shock that Jaylen Brown left for the NBA Draft, as most figured that would happen given his physical gifts and the potential he showed before and during his lone year of college ball. But Jordan Mathews opting to transfer for his final year seemingly came out of nowhere. Then they at least got a pleasant surprise: Ivan Rabb opted to come back for his sophomore year instead of following Brown to the NBA.

It’s against that backdrop that we now look at this year’s team quite differently than a year ago. There are no grand expectations, no questions about whether this team will contend, or even if they are trending upward towards regularly contending in the Pac-12. Besides that, Oregon is basically the overwhelming favorite and seen as a national title contender. In other words, this Golden Bear team is a bit under the radar, and that may be all right.

The cupboard isn’t bare. While the top three scorers are gone from last season’s team, this was a team built on defense, plus the next six leading scorers all return. And you can do a lot worse than a core of Rabb, who could be a double-double guy this season after averaging 12.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game a year ago, flanked by Bird and senior point guard Sam Singer, who started nine games last season. Bird has had a solid career as a complementary player and shot 41 percent from long range a year ago, but now he doesn’t have Mathews to draw the attention of opposing defenses. Holdover seven-footers Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks will need to do more this season, and they will get challenged often in practice by Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee, who will sit out before playing his final year of eligibility next season.

While this year’s recruiting class doesn’t have the star power last year’s had, it isn’t lacking talent that can help them. On the perimeter, Singer will be pushed by Charlie Moore, a highly-touted addition at who could snag the starting job somewhere along the way, while junior college transfer Don Coleman can score and graduate transfer Grant Mullins (Columbia) lends experienced help.

The schedule is also kind to the Golden Bears – as in, very home-heavy. If they can repeat their success at Haas Pavilion from a year ago – they won all 18 games there – they will be in a great place as Pac-12 play begins. They don’t play a single true road game, with visits from Summit League contender South Dakota State, Louisiana Tech and the finale against Virginia highlighting them. They do play three neutral site games, heading to Sacramento to take on San Diego State and Honolulu to take on Ivy League contender Princeton as well as Seton Hall in the Pearl Harbor Invitational.

While they aren’t being talked about the way they were last season, this year’s team still has some talent and even more overall experience. They also have something to prove after the way last season ended, especially given the expectations before the season. There will be a lot of adjusting to new roles, as scorers need to emerge in place of Wallace and Brown, while Bird now has to be the key guy on the perimeter and Rabb has to carry the frontcourt.

This team can still reach the NCAA Tournament once again. This time, it would happen not with more grand pronouncements or expectations. It will just happen.

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