As the head coach at Tennessee, Cuonzo Martin built a team centered on an aggressive defense, a system successful enough to take the Vols into last year’s Sweet Sixteen. So when Martin was announced as the Cal men’s basketball head coach in April, many fans hoped Martin’s style of play would help get the Bears get back to the NCAA tournament after a disappointing trip to the NIT.
At home at 7 p.m. on Friday, Cal will take on Alcorn State in the first game of the season and the 2K Classic. It will be the first real look at this new Bears team — a team that will be without last year’s stars, Justin Cobb and Richard Solomon.
“This year, coach Martin has kind of shaped all of our games to kind of just play as the game goes. His whole thing is ‘Don’t be good at one thing, be good at all things,’ ” said sophomore guard Jordan Mathews. “He tells us, ‘If you’re not going 100 (percent) all game, you’re coming right out.’”
With Cobb and Solomon gone, Martin will be trotting out a lineup with three returning starters — senior forward David Kravish, junior guard Tyrone Wallace and sophomore guard Jabari Bird — with the two other slots going to redshirt junior forward Christian Behrens and Mathews.
The entire Cal lineup has played reasonably well in the team’s two exhibitions game, where Cal beat Cal State East Bay, 94-50, and Cal State San Marcos, 74-52. In particular, the 6-foot-5 Wallace has shown off his athleticism, with 34 points and eight assists over the two games.
“Our guard play is one of our strengths,” Wallace said, “So whenever we can, coach wants us to get the ball up the floor, be aggressive and attack. Not out of control, though, so if it’s not there, we bring it back out. Basically, the point guard has to run the team, so, you know, I’ve got to know when to press it and when to kick it ahead to the guards.”
His coach also likes having him there.
“He knows how to use his side, he knows how to use his body around the rim, and he can make decisions,” Martin said.
Bird, who had a disappointing regular season last year — he averaged 8.3 points per game — but a strong NIT tournament, has looked good so far in the exhibition games, averaging 12 points per game. Bird also had seven rebounds in the game against Cal State East Bay but only had three against Cal State San Marcos.
“He’s the guy that should get six to eight a night, with his size and athleticism,” Martin said.
The 6-foot-10 Kravish, a Pac-12 All-Defensive Team honorable mention who posted a school single-season record 73 blocks, has started Cal’s last 88 games. Kravish is only 30 blocks shy of 207, the Cal record, and has only 107 points to go before reaching 1,000.
Cal will also get help from forward and Cornell graduate Dwight Tarwater, sophomore forward Roger Moute a Bidias, freshman center Kingsley Okoroh and sophomore guard Sam Singer.
The Bears will look for tough play from their defense, both on the strong and weak sides of the ball. They’ll also look to try and take away the wing. Alcorn State, which finished 12-19 last year, has an offense that starts with junior forward LeAntwan Luckett, the SWAC preseason player of the year. Last season, Luckett was second in the conference in scoring with 16 points per game and posted double figures in 26 out of 31 games.
The game against the Braves is the first of four games in the 2K Classic. After the regional round, the four tournament hosts — Cal, Syracuse, Iowa and Texas — will automatically advance to the championship rounds Nov. 21 and 22 at Madison Square Garden.