In the Cal men’s basketball team’s past four games — all games Cal has won — sophomore guard Jabari Bird has been a star. Coming back from an injury and returning to form, not only has he averaged 12 points and 5.8 rebounds, but he has forced defenses to pay attention to him in a way they didn’t have to for whoever was starting in his place. As a result, the court has been opened up and spread out for the Bears’ other players.
The Bears (15-9, 5-6 Pac-12) will then look to use Bird to continue this four-game winning streak (three of which have happened because of late game-winners) as they head to Colorado to take on the Buffaloes (11-11, 4-6).
“When you get Jabari back in the fold, now your spacing is better, your shots are better, your opportunities are better,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin.
With Bird back in the starting lineup, Cal has been having an easier time of going inside and penetrating with the guards. The lane has also been cleared for junior guard Tyrone Wallace, the Bears’ leading scorer, who went through a bit of a rough patch because of defensive congestion earlier this season.
Because of the injury to Bird, Martin had to put in guys who weren’t accustomed to the kind of minutes they were getting, which hurt the team at the time, the weak bench hardly contributing to the scoring line. Plus, the players weren’t being defended the same way Bird is defended. But the Bears have been working hard in practice to strengthen the bench, which Martin thinks will help the team in the long run since it will give the starters more of a chance to rest.
“Maintaining strength of your bench, that’s where the growth is,” Martin said.
Wallace has also been a big part of the Bears’ season, along with Bird and sophomore guard Jordan Mathews, making up 62.5 percent of Cal’s scoring average this season. Both Mathews and Wallace have played in every game this season and are averaging 14.8 and 17.4 points per game, respectively. It’s Wallace’s first season in the point guard role, and Martin has been please with Wallace’s unselfish play.
“Tyrone has done a tremendous job,” Martin said. “He’s a guy who can score 20 a night. … You look at (the game against) Washington, he gives the ball up. … It speaks volume about his growth as a basketball player.”
The Bears will be taking on a Colorado team that will have back its leading scorer, senior guard Askia Booker, who had been absent from the lineup because of a hip injury. Colorado hasn’t had its star trio — Booker, Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott — playing together since around Christmas.
“You’ve got one of the best college scorers, not just in the Pac-12 but in the country,” Martin said of Booker. “You’ve got a guy who can score in a variety of ways. … Any way you want the ball to be scored, he can do it at a high level.”
The Buffaloes play well in transition and have been strong playing at home. Sophomore guard Sam Singer said Cal will have to take good shots so the game doesn’t turn into a track meet, which would be especially taxing at the altitude, which Singer said can be “quite the challenge.”
The recent win-streak has taken a load of the Bears’ shoulders, making them play more confidently, which will be huge in Colorado as Cal looks to improve its Pac-12 record.
“I think, more than anything, it’s a case of getting that 30 point weight off your back when you get a win,” Martin said. “The offense is flowing, you’re having fun, you’re playing together.”