As Cal shooting guard Jabari Bird sunk his fourth three-point shot of the night in Madison Square Garden last November, the Cal men’s basketball team inexplicably defied preseason expectations.
From its outset, the 2014-15 season was projected to be a down year for the Bears. And while ultimately many would agree that the prediction proved accurate, Cal’s early victory over then-No. 23 Syracuse in New York marked a brief period of excitement after a preseason fraught with more unknowns than enthusiasm. With no talent to replace the holes left behind by the previous year’s starting seniors, the Bears’ early success could only come with a touch of surprise.
One year later, to say that expectations are different coming into the 2015-16 season would be an understatement.
In head coach Cuonzo Martin’s second season with the Bears, Cal would almost certainly be the favorite in a matchup with the sanction-crippled Orange, which ranks 42nd in Sports Illustrated’s 1-351 rankings. Meanwhile, after an 18-15 campaign that saw no postseason action outside of Pac-12 for the first time since 2007, the Bears come into this season ranked No.14 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, joining a small and rare group of teams, such as LSU, that are hopping onto the rankings off of extremely successful recruiting efforts this past offseason.
Most notable on Cal’s list of new weapons are forwards Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, who each come in as five-star recruits and will have an immediate impact on the Bears’ starting roster. Replacing former senior David Kravish as a flexible option at either the four or the five, 6-foot-11 Rabb offers explosive offense as a quick big man with impressive postwork, while Brown — ranked as the No. 4 recruit in the country — provides explosive scoring ability at forward.
“It’s hard to go at a guy who can make shots of that size, and he can dribble the ball and he’s a good passer,” Martin said regarding Brown last week. “If he gets his step around the rim, he has the ability to go up over you and dunk the ball so it makes it hard to defend a guy like that.”
The addition of the two elite freshmen clears up what was an indeterminate front court for Cal last season that alternated between a slew of players including Dwight Tarwater and Christian Behrens, neither of whom performed to the point of securing a consistent recurring role. By the end of the season, neither Tarwater nor Behrens was averaging more than five points per game, which should make Rabb’s and Brown’s appearances particularly impactful.
Meanwhile, the rest of the starting roster will be rounded out by a solid group of guards with Jordan Mathews, Jabari Bird and Tyrone Wallace all returning this season. Primarily playing at point last season, Wallace finished as a First-Team All-Pac-12 selection and averaged more than 17 points per game. Mathews and Bird each averaged more than 10 points with 13.6 and 10.5, respectively, and also bring a scoring ability from outside the arc. By the end of last season, Mathews was shooting the three at an elite 44.3 percent.
With a lot of speed from point to center, this group could excel in a fast-paced offense despite Martin’s preference for a slower game. Rabb and Brown both have the ability to dominate in transition, and this should easily cut through some of the weaker defenses that Cal will encounter at the beginning of the season. Indeed, other than San Diego State — which is known for its consistent defensive prowess year to year — and No. 6 Virginia, the Bears’ nonconference schedule is filled with matchups much like those of last year when the squad went on a 10-1 run.
But while the first portion of the season doesn’t look too imposing, the Pac-12 once again brings a mixed bag of opponents. Clearly, the two biggest threats will be No. 10 Arizona, which, despite losing Stanley Johnson, brings in the No. 4 recruiting class in the country and Utah, which ranks just behind the Bears at No. 16. If Cal is going to truly prove it’s a transformed program, it will need to keep pace with the Wildcats and the Utes, both of whom made deep tournament runs last year while Cal watched on TV.
Dani Jo Coony covers men’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected]