Spirits are considerably higher in Irvine after Monday’s 73-58 win over South Dakota State. Galloway established himself as a rebounding and defensive beast while Jaron poured in a career high 24 points. The ‘Eaters soundly beat a decent mid-major without their best player. While we still have a long way to go, Monday’s game was a glimpse at what the future can hold.
With that said, it’s on to a ranked Cal squad, a team that beat the very same South Dakota State team by 29.
To preview this one, I’ve enlisted the help of esteemed blogger Nick Kranz over at California Golden Blogs. Nick was kind enough to answer some questions in preparation for Wednesday’s game.
1) UCI fans are used to a match-up with Cal serving as a reunion between master (Mike Montgomery) and apprentice (Russell Turner). This will be the first time that the Anteaters visit Berkeley with Cuonzo Martin at the helm. How have the team’s defining characteristics changed since the coaching switch?
Nick Kranz: There have been stylistics changes, of course. Martin is more of a defensive guru compared to Monty’s crisp half-court sets, and the Cal offense is a little bit more wing focused than the past. But the real difference is in recruiting, where Martin has firmly embraced the modern world of college basketball talent acquisition. The Bears, for the first time in memory, have been actively courting 5 star prospects and have had success in the graduate transfer market. It’s why Cal has Ivan Rabb, among other players who wouldn’t necessarily be in Berkeley otherwise. Those players have changed the team dynamic, and the Bears are considered Pac-12 title contenders as a consequence.
2) Martin has obviously brought some prized recruits to the Bay Area but are fans generally satisfied with the job he’s done on the court as well? Those already looking past UCI in favor of the San Diego State game may need to be reminded that UCI’s conference mate Hawaii ended Cal’s season back in March.
Nick Kranz: There’s a tiny undercurrent of frustration with Cal’s results last season. The Bears were tantalizingly close to a number of defining wins – on the road in Virginia, Oregon, and Arizona, and in the Pac-12 tournament vs. Utah – that could have catapulted the Bears to an even higher NCAA seed. I think most are willing to give Martin a pass for the loss to Hawaii because of the circumstances – two starters lost to injury in the days and minutes prior to tip – but it certainly left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans.
There are those who question Martin’s offensive Xs and Os, and it’s true that Cal’s offense has dragged behind the defense. It’s also true that Martin hasn’t had a pure point guard on the roster until this season, so we’ll see how having perhaps a more even mix of offensive talent changes Cal’s offensive efficiency.
3) If UCI is going to keep this one close, what Golden Bear weaknesses must they expose on Wednesday?
Nick Kranz: The easiest answer to that question is simply hoping that Ivan Rabb doesn’t play. Rabb picked up a (presumably minor) foot injury in a pre-season scrimmage and sat out the season opener against South Dakota State. He’s generally seen as one of the single most important players in the country, and Cal simply isn’t the same team without him.
Last year, Cal had two clear weaknesses – they turned the ball over too much on offense, and they fouled too much on defense. We’re hoping that a remade backcourt featuring point guard Charlie Moore and combo guard Grant Mullins will address the turnover issue, but those players are still untested as teammates within Cal’s system. A quick glance at Russell Turner’s coaching stat profile doesn’t suggest to me that his teams tend to play pressure defense or draw a ton of fouls. UCI’s best bet is to play their typically solid base defense and hope that it’s enough to limit Cal’s scoring, then hit enough 3s to steal the game.
4) Whether Ivan Rabb plays or not is clearly a game changer. Rabb aside, how has Cal made up for the loss of current Celtic Jaylen Brown? We are not too pleased to see old foe Grant Mullins, who had a nearly flawless game against UCI in the CIT Championship game last year.
Nick Kranz: As I somewhat alluded to above, the 2015-16 Bears were very talented, but the parts didn’t mix and match very well. We had two ball-dominant off-guards (Brown and Tyrone Wallace) and played long stretches without a true point guard. As a result, Cal wasn’t able to fully unleash Brown and Rabb because there wasn’t a point to get them the ball in positions to really do a ton of damage.
Moore is, hopefully, that point guard. Meanwhile, Mullins comes in to replace the shooting of the departed Jordan Mathews, but Mullins played enough point at Columbia that his passing should open up opportunities for his teammates as well. If Cal is better this year, it will be because better ball movement and spacing allows the roster (primarily Rabb) to get the ball in high leverage places.
5) Will Cal ever schedule an away game in Irvine again? I know that 56-52 road loss back in 2000 was a tough pill to swallow, but isn’t it about time that Cal throws their UC-system brethren a bone?
Nick Kranz: Cal made the same mistake back in 2014 when a borderline tournament team lost a game at UC Santa Barbara. Had they played (and won) in Berkeley, would the Bears have made the NCAA tournament? I dunno, but I selfishly prefer that scenario in my mind! Cal has since played mildly unusual road games at Wyoming, Nevada, and Fresno State, so never say never . . . but apparently only 1 or 2 teams get the lotto ticket each year.