As the shot clock wound down for Rice, its guards continued to call for on-ball screens, surveying the court for small cracks of open space they could use to attack the basket. But the Owls’ incessant screening and rescreening proved futile, as the Bears proved long and quick enough at their wing positions to switch every Rice pick and roll, forcing long, contested jump shots. Meanwhile, the Bears found themselves firing on all cylinders, grounding the Owls on their way to a 97-65 victory in their season opener at Haas Pavilion.
Cal men’s basketball head coach Cuonzo Martin kept the same starting lineup of guards Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews in the backcourt, and Jabari Bird, Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb up front. Despite playing small to begin the game, the Bears outsized the Owls at every position, and it showed early on.
Martin’s strategy to limit Rice’s points in the paint was apparent from the opening tip. The Bears kept a defender — usually center Kameron Rooks or Rabb — close to the basket to help on attacking guards, showing enough help to force a pass but staying back enough to possibly deflect it.
“I feel the chemistry,” Rabb said. “If we continue to get stops like that, it’ll make our offense even more potent with us getting out in transition.”
Four minutes into the game, Cal got lost on a pick and roll as Rice’s guard, Bishop Mency, denied the screen to his right and attacked baseline. But Rabb, manning the paint, caught on to the action early on and recovered for a clean block on the attacking guard. When the Bears picked up the loose ball, they got the rock to Brown, attacking the basket. His layup attempt got two bounces on the rim, but the trailing Rabb was able to get to the offensive board in time for the tip dunk. Cal contained the Owls to 38 percent shooting in the first half, with Rabb asserting his presence in the paint with two blocks and several more good contests near the basket.
The Bears forced only three turnovers in the first half but got several good looks whenever they pushed the ball off a miss. Brown and Wallace looked like streaks of white as they sprinted toward their basket to attack in transition. Their defenders struggled to stay in front of them, resulting in great looks off cuts for Bird and rolls to the rim for Rooks when the Rice big men were forced to help on the duo’s relentless attacks at the rim.
With Mathews bombing jumpers behind the arc and guard Stephen Domingo disrupting the Owl offense with his long arms and athletic build, the closest Rice cut the deficit to was 10.
Cal’s 47-31 lead at the end of the first half only grew as the squad limited Rice’s scoring opportunities to the free-throw line. The Bears, on the other hand, found their stroke from deep as Brown and guard Sam Singer combined for four 3-pointers in the second half alone. The ball found itself to open shooters as Cal pinged the ball around the perimeter, resulting in eight players finishing with at least one assist.
Driving lines for Brown and Wallace only opened up further as 3-pointers began to drop for the Bears. With a little more than four minutes left in the game, the lead ballooned to as much as 35 points after a 3-pointer from Singer. Wallace contributed 20 points to the rout, along with six rebounds and eight assists, while Brown finished the game with 14 points on a team-high 15 shooting possessions.
“We say, ‘Run as fast as you can,’ ” Martin said. “When you get the ball off the glass, run as fast as you can and make a play. Eventually, the defense breaks. We want to go as fast as we can but not run wild and out of control.”
Winston Cho covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho