Cal men’s basketball will officially open season Friday against South Dakota State

Mikaela Raphael/File

A few days after one of the most polarizing elections of all time, the Cal men’s basketball team will open its season — on Veterans Day, no less — against South Dakota State.

After one of the best seasons in recent years for the Bears, fans have certainly lowered their expectations for the team, in the wake of the departures of crucial pieces from the NCAA tournament run in Jaylen Brown, Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews. But with sophomore Ivan Rabb anchoring Cal down low and former four-star recruit senior Jabari Bird providing an outside threat, the Bears might be in for something different but equally exciting this season.

“I think this (year’s) team might be a little bit better offensively because we spent a little more time — not a lot — but a little more time offensively,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “When you have returning guys — even though you have guys that didn’t play a lot, but returning guys that understand what we’re trying to do — then you are able to do a little bit more on both sides of the ball.”

Whether any exciting offense happens will depend largely on how the Bears can work together to get off shots, especially in a system that relies on perimeter shooting. Last year, Martin’s offense worked well on the occasion when four smaller guys on the perimeter surrounded one big man in the middle — usually Rabb — to clean up. A more frequent tactic would involve Brown abusing his speed and dribbling ability to penetrate and kick out to open shooters in Mathews, Bird and team-leading scorer Wallace. But last season’s Bears ultimately got their identity by collectively playing defense — they only allowed 67.3 points per game, the best in the Pac-12 — which led to easy transition buckets.

Unfortunately, leaving with Brown is a solid perimeter defender and somebody to push the fast break. This season, Martin has focused on offense, seemingly to take advantage of the powerhouse that is Rabb. Without a well-rounded wing like Brown, the offense will work from inside out this year, with Rabb the focal point, and he is expected to excel as the main option.

Unfortunately for Cal fans, they might have to wait past Friday to see the season debut of their superstar, who is dealing with a foot injury and had to miss last week’s 81-73 exhibition victory against Cal Baptist.

“Not bad,” Martin said in regards to Rabb’s injury. “He’s been at practice but not five-on-five contact, but he’s getting shots up and running and doing individual practice but not a five-on-five workout.”

The fact that Rabb hasn’t been practicing with full contact indicates that he is likely to miss Friday’s contest, and the Bears will have to rely once again on their outside shooting. Last week, graduate transfer Grant Mullins scored 16 points on six-for-11 shooting, but poor shooting performances from Bird and point guard Sam Singer left more to be desired.

The Jackrabbits — who won the Summit League Championship last year and qualified as a 12-seed for the NCAA Tournament — are a formidable opponent, much more so than Cal Baptist. Consequently, if the Bears want to open their season with a win, they’ll need to work together without Rabb to put forth a performance better than their pedestrian exhibition win last week.

Vikram Muller covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].