The Cal men’s basketball team is losing its most pivotal pieces on offense and defense in Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon. The system on both sides of the ball has to change, and there’s no way around it. And with former head coach Mike Montgomery gone and newly appointed head coach Cuonzo Martin taking his place, never has training camp been more important than it is now.
As the head coach of Tennessee last season, Martin ran a slow-paced but efficient offense. Despite taking a whopping 19.7 seconds to shoot, his team actually shot a 49.7 effective field goal percentage, indicating that Martin runs a disciplined offense predicated on ball movement. The Vols may have taken a while to shoot the ball, but they were very deliberate in their shot selection.
Without a viable option down low, the Bears are going to have play a lot more small-ball this season. A starting lineup of Sam Singer, Jordan Matthews, Jabari Bird, Tyrone Wallace and David Kravish is going to be hard to defend as nearly every player can stretch the floor out to at least 17 feet, leaving optimal room to drive the lane and finish or kick out to shooters. Three-pointers made up a paltry 23.6 percent of Cal’s points last season — a number that will have to increase for the Bears to score consistently.
Having size on the floor seems like an obvious advantage in basketball. But the benefits of playing small have never been more apparent than it is now. With four shooters on the floor, players have more room to drive as help defenders have to make a choice between helping on the weak side or sticking with their man. Lack of second-chance opportunities may be a problem, but most coaches emphasize getting back on defense more than offensive rebounds.
While Cal actually shot above-average from the field last season, it rarely got to the free throw line as points from the charity stripe made up just 19.4 percent of the Bears’ total points. An aggressive offensive scheme predicated more on drive-and-kicks will undoubtedly lead to more free throws, but this is entirely dependent on the ball-handling of Cal’s perimeter players. Matthews was tasked with improving his handle during the offseason to complement his sharp-shooting, as was Bird to complement his athleticism. Bird will have to be a major contributor on the offensive end as his athleticism allows for explosive and creative finishes around the rim. Opposing defenses exposed his inability to handle the ball and relegated him to a spot-up shooter, but a steady diet of jump shots will keep defenders on their toes, giving him more room to drive the lane.
Sophomore Singer is expected to step into Cobbs’ role, but if last season was any indicator, the Cal offense is in trouble. On most teams, the point guard is the most impactful position, and without a steady, confident floor general, the Cal offense will lack direction leading to periods of stagnancy. What’s most concerning about Singer is his poor shooting from essentially all over the floor. In a limited sample size, the backup point guard shot just 47.4 percent from the free-throw line and 40 percent from the field. Without the ability to stretch the floor, opposing defenses will be able to sag off, clogging the lane and creating a wall around the rim.
Even more concerning than Cal’s point guard situation is the gaping hole in the middle left by Solomon. The Bears have essentially no viable option left at center. At times, Kameron Rooks looked like he just started playing basketball, fumbling the ball more often than Jared Goff and conceding fouls to opposing guards when switched on the pick and roll. This leaves Kravish, a natural power forward, as the most logical option at center. Despite being undersized, he stretches the floor, as he proved that he can hit midrange jumpers.
While Cal is still reeling from the losses of Solomon and Cobbs, as well as the retirement of Montgomery, Martin has to be creative with his offensive system and sets. With the available pieces on the team, Martin’s best choice is to abandon the traditional two big men front court and opt for a small lineup predicated on shooting.
Winston Cho is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho