In his one week as head coach of the Cal men’s basketball team, Cuonzo Martin has done all the right things.
He’s stressed academics. He’s talked about the value of community. He said in his introductory press conference that he would talk to players about “trust and love.” He brought his family to a Cal baseball game and threw the opening pitch. He’s even flipped a 7-foot-1 recruit from Tennessee to Cal.
But, of course, we haven’t seen any real basketball yet, and won’t for a while.
No one knows whether Cal will win more or less with Martin than they did last year. Tennessee won exactly one more regular season game than Cal in 2013-14, and the Vols were just able to turn an NCAA tournament berth into a Sweet Sixteen appearance. But as far as regular-season wins go, there wasn’t a huge gulf between the two.
What we can expect are some changes to the Cal offense.
At Tennessee, Martin consistently ran one of the slowest offenses in the country. Its 19.7 seconds per offensive possession were a full 2.5 seconds more than Cal this season and ranked among the slowest teams in the nation. Cal never took more than 17.5 seconds per possession in the Mike Montgomery era, and Montgomery’s offenses usually ranked around the middle of the Pac-12. Only Washington State took longer than 19.7 seconds on possessions last year in the conference.
That isn’t to say that Martin’s offenses are bad — just that they are deliberate. Tennessee’s 1.16 points per possession last year would rank third in the Pac-12, well above Cal’s 1.10. His teams might take a while to score, but they do so efficiently, making full use of college’s 35-second shot clock.
The upside of a slow system is that it minimizes the number of possessions in a game, thus decreasing the sample size of plays available in the 40 minutes of gametime and therefore increasing the variance of scores and, with it, the likelihood of upsets. There’s a chance that in a significantly slower system with fewer possessions, Cal could come out on top against higher-ranked teams.
The downside is the exact same — fewer possessions make it more likely that Cal loses a game it should win.
On defense, Martin runs the same kind of system: boring but effective. At Tennessee, his teams rarely forced turnovers, yet last year allowed just .948 points per possession, good for 19th in the country. Cal fans will be used to this kind of play, however, as the 2013-14 Bears were one of the worst teams in the country at forcing turnovers.
All of these trends held true during Martin’s tenure at Missouri State as well, so expect him to bring the same style to Cal.
The bigger question, then, will be if Martin’s system will fit Cal’s players. That’s also a hard question to answer, as Cal is losing two of its starters in Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon. Who takes over at point guard — possibly Sam Singer — will have a huge influence on the way the offense runs. And someone will need to replace Solomon’s presence in the middle on defense.
Still, I expect that Martin’s teams will look like those that we have seen at Tennessee and Missouri State — slow, boring and effective.