With stud sophomore Ivan Rabb in tow, the Cal men’s basketball team will soon tip off a 2016 season that the team hopes will be plagued less by the curse of high expectations that 2015 was, but by a more holistic development toward full potential — because the Pac-12 looks as strong as ever.
The Bears will have some time to prepare for the storm, though. From opening night Friday until five days after Christmas, Cal will play two teams worth shaking a serious stick at in San Diego State and Virginia. The rest — the likes of Southeastern Louisiana, Alcorn State and Cal Poly — should prove very fertile feeding grounds for the new-face-laden Bears to come together around their one established superstar.
But, once that conference schedule picks up, they’ll need to be ready. Many Pac-12 teams are improved from an in-general down year in 2015, including No. 5 Oregon, which looks primed to make a national title run with four of five starters returning from last year’s Elite Eight squad. Arizona and UCLA also appear in the preseason AP Top 25 at numbers 10 and 16, respectively.
As for the Bears themselves, there are going to be some changes. Jaylen Brown is off to greener pastures — seriously, look at those gaudy uniforms — and with him, he’s taken not only 14.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and two assists per game but also a 31.4 percent usage rate. Talk about gaudy. Cal’s offense, for better or more oftentimes worse, ran nearly exclusively through Brown when he was on the court last year, and in his stead, many players will now need to shoulder a bigger load. While Rabb will undoubtedly eat up more possessions, he can’t exactly handle the ball enough to orchestrate an offense. No, that will be left to the guards.
Sam Singer, Grant Mullins and Stephen Domingo all started in Cal’s exhibition game against Cal Baptist and can all expect to have the ball in their hands much more this season.
Singer is the only one who’s somewhat established in a Bears uniform but will need to work on his game — mainly offensively — in order to be a strong contributor. Sure, a career average of 5.1 assists per 40 minutes isn’t bad, but just 0.6 threes is simply abhorrent, especially for a point guard. So much of an offense relies on the point guard being able to lure a defender out to the three-point line, and giving extended minutes to one who can’t will muck up whatever sets Cal tries to run.
Mullins, however, was a knockdown shooter at Columbia. Hitting 43.9 percent from outside in 2015, Mullins is even better from three-point range than Cal’s very best sharpshooter Jabari Bird, who boasts a career 37.4 percent mark. Both should help open things up a bit inside for Rabb.
The greatest enigma, though, is Domingo. After transferring from Georgetown, the guard played just more than 10 minutes per game last season and wasn’t all that impactful during that time — registering 1.7 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.6 assists on a clunky 32.1 field goal percentage. He should get more playing time this year and already looks improved from 2015.