Even without Ivan Rabb, who’s widely considered one of the top returning players in the country, the Cal men’s basketball team looked dangerous on both ends of the floor Friday night in its season opener against South Dakota State. The Bears cruised to a 29-point victory, defeating the Jackrabbits 82-53 on their home floor.
Despite the lack of Rabb’s interior presence, the Bears’ offense had no trouble putting points on the board. Cal used a number of ball screens and pick-and-rolls to free up perimeter shooters, which the Bears’ roster is abundant in. This strategy proved extremely effective, with six different players recording a three-pointer for Cal. Bird led the team in terms of outside shooting, draining four triples on just nine attempts.
The Bears also managed to generate open looks for shooters with a number of drive-and-kick plays that forced South Dakota State to collapse its defense. Despite having a weak shooting night on paper, freshman Charlie Moore showcased his athleticism, particularly his lateral quickness, on many of his drives to the basket and demanded defensive attention.
Much like Jaylen Brown did last year, however, Moore showed a tendency to commit offensive fouls while charging to the hoop. This is a struggle that many young slashers face early in the transition to playing college basketball, and it will likely diminish as Moore gets acclimated. Even though Moore doesn’t have the size or strength that Brown had, he still gives the Bears a viable threat to drive the ball inside because of his speed and aggression.
The standout performance of the night belonged to senior guard Sam Singer, who, along with senior guard Jabari Bird, scored 14 points to lead the team. Singer also chipped in six rebounds and five assists, while maintaining an efficient 60 percent shooting for the game.
Cal’s shooters thrived, which is especially encouraging when factoring in Rabb’s absence. With Rabb on the floor, the Bears will have a reliable low-post threat, which will create even more space on the floor for all the perimeter threats on the team.
On the defensive end, Cal was just as impressive. The Bears held South Dakota State, a 12-seed in last year’s NCAA tournament, to just 53 points on an abysmal 28.6 percent shooting. The tandem of centers Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh provided limited scoring output but did an effective job in protecting the rim. Rooks and Okoroh, both seven-footers, had four blocks each, towering over South Dakota State’s 6-foot-9 Mike Daum. The size advantage also allowed Cal to dominate the Jackrabbits on the boards, winning the rebounding battle 54-26.
South Dakota State often tried to take advantage of Rooks’ lack of mobility by getting Daum open from outside and forcing Rooks to close out on him. Daum shot 2-3 from long range, but shot 5-14 overall and wasn’t able to take advantage of Rooks’ inability to contest his shots in time.
“We knew it was going to be a battle trying to keep their big guy at the rim and we had to try to take advantage of that, and obviously we weren’t so successful at that endeavor,” said South Dakota State head coach TJ Otzelberger. “Mike (Daum) came out, rushed a couple early, had a couple get blocked and then we had a tough time getting them in there, and that allowed them to settle in defensively and in the paint.”
The Bears’ stifling defense helped them create the defining run of the game, holding the Jackrabbits scoreless from the 16:16 mark in the second half until the 5:26 mark. Before the run, South Dakota State cut the lead to single digits, bringing the score to 40-32 early in the second half. But during this almost 11-minute stretch, Cal scored 24 straights points, pushing its lead from 46-35 to an insurmountable 70-35 margin.
Kapil Kashyap covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]