Nonconference wrap-up: Influx of youth transforms Cal men’s basketball

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We all know the story by now. There are lots of different stats and advanced stats and contextualized stats and noncontextualized stats that can be used to describe last season, but the only two that matters are the W’s and L’s – eight wins to 24 losses.

At the conclusion of head coach Wyking Jones’ second go-round in nonconference play, the Bears currently stand at 5-7. Considering Cal would have likely won the canceled game against Detroit Mercy, this team essentially has the same 6-7 nonconference record as last year.

A year removed from — depending on how you slice it — the worst season in program history, the Bears sit essentially in the same spot heading into conference play. So what has changed for Cal? And how will things shake out in conference play?

The optimism of Oski

The most notable year-to-year change for Cal is the offense: going from the worst offense in the Pac-12 to a respectable unit.

Last season, Cal came scarily close to being the absolute worst 3-point shooting team in the entire nation, finishing 349th (out of 351 schools) in 3-pointers made and 3-point percentage. That in mind, it shouldn’t come as a shocker that the team finished 296th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.

The train wreck that was last year’s offense was the product of a misconstructed roster that drew more resemblance to a toddler trying to fit a square block into a circular hole rather than a living, functioning offense.

Don Coleman was one of the worst 3-point shooters in the entire nation. Justice Sueing was solid, but not great. Marcus Lee, Juhwan Harris-Dyson and Kingsley Okoroh weren’t shooters. The great irony in last season is that Darius McNeill set the program record for threes made by a freshman despite being surrounded by all those nonshooters.

In year two of Jones’ tenure, the script has flipped. Heading into conference play, the Bears have the best 3-point shooting percentage in the Pac-12, knocking down the long ball at a clip of 38.2 percent.

McNeill has been far more efficient on roughly the same number of attempts, while the incoming group of freshmen have all proven capable of hitting the shot from behind the arc.

That influx of young talent has also spread out the point distribution. Instead of placing the majority of the pressure on two or three players, this team plays with an “any given night” mentality where the offense will derive from the hot hand.

This newfound diversity has shown up in the final box scores. This season, there have already been two games in which five players ended with double figures, a phenomenon that only happened twice last season.

The long-awaited introduction of redshirt junior Paris Austin, a pure point guard, has helped quell another problem that plagued Cal last season: turnovers.

With the departure of Charlie Moore, Grant Mullins and Sam Singer, Coleman and McNeill became primary ballhandlers last season, a field neither excelled in. That inexperience played into the issue of turnovers under the pressure of running an offense at the collegiate level.

The arrival of Austin has both allowed McNeill to return to his more natural position as an off-the-ball guard and done wonders for slicing turnovers. After turning the ball over on 20.8 percent of possessions last season, the 314th-ranked mark in the nation, Cal has cut that figure to 16.7 percent, the 37th-best mark in the nation.

Austin has given Cal a weapon it did not have at its disposal last season: a playmaker.

In 12 games, Austin is averaging 5.1 assists per game, a leap from the 2.8 assists per game he averaged in his final season at Boise State.

Should he continue this current pace, he’ll join elite company. Over the last 20 seasons, Jerome Randle (08-09) and Justin Cobbs (11-12, 13-14) have been the only two players to average at least five assists a night for the program.

The introduction of Austin has brought a calm flow to the offense and made life easier for the rest of the Bears, particularly McNeill.

The Houston product is averaging roughly the same number of points per game, but he’s been remarkably more efficient, cutting turnovers in half and upping his true shooting percentage from 50.2 to 55.8 percent. By putting the ball in Austin’s hands, McNeill has spent more time moving off the ball and navigating around screens, leading to more threes off the catch and shoot.

McNeill isn’t the only player hitting his shots on excellent efficiency. Andre Kelly, far and away the most impressive Cal freshman so far, is currently averaging 10.4 points per game on a 68.8 true shooting percentage, the best mark in the Pac-12.

What’s most enticing about Kelly is that only part of his game has been utilized thus far. The Stockton product’s biggest selling point out of high school was his prowess as a point forward. Not only did he score down low and rebound, but he could also shoot and lead the break.

Kelly has flashed the jumper on occasion, hitting both 3-pointers he has attempted and a handful of midrange shots, but he has yet to have an opportunity to handle the rock or be a playmaker.

Don’t forget the reality

While the Bears have taken one step forward on the offensive end of the floor, they’ve taken five steps back on defense. Much like the offense, the defense’s transformation can be traced back to personnel.

Lee and Okoroh were two of the Pac-12’s premier shot blockers, paint presences who excelled at altering shots. Kelly and Connor Vanover have yet to be the same caliber of defenders. While Vanover has the height and length, his frail 225-pound frame doesn’t do him any favors.

More concerning than the Bears’ lack of rim protection is their 3-point defense, a problem that dates back to last season. Currently, Cal is allowing opponents to hit threes at a clip of 39.0 percent, which currently ranks 332nd in the entire nation.

That number in and of itself should be cause for major alarm, but it’s especially alarming because conference play hasn’t begun. For all of the Pac-12’s shortcomings this season, the conference is filled with shooters who will make Cal pay if and when they are given the space.

Consider the discrepancy between nonconference and conference play last season. In nonconference play, Cal’s opponents hit 38.0 percent of their threes. In conference play, they knocked down 41.8 percent of their attempts behind the arc.

Shifting back to the offense, the stagnation of Harris-Dyson is a cause for concern. After a promising freshman season, one that was hampered by a case of the flu that caused him to lose 20 pounds, there was reason to believe he would take a step forward in all areas of his game. For the most part, however, he has taken a step back.

Excluding the Temple and San Francisco games, in which he barely played, Harris-Dyson is averaging 4.6 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game. More cause for alarm is that he has yet to develop a jump shot, solely relying on getting to the rim as a 6’5” guard.

Harris-Dyson isn’t someone who comes off the bench with guns blazing, instead, being the type to feel out the lay of the land before acting, but foul trouble has kept him from getting comfortable. Per 40 minutes, Harris-Dyson is picking up 6.8 personal fouls, enough to put him out of commission, and then some.

Harris-Dyson has been receiving an extended run in the past couple games, but part of that has been due to Vanover being sidelined.

On Dec. 15, Vanover collided with the shoulder of Cal Poly’s Junior Ballard, instantly going down and bleeding from the face. Since the collision, Vanover has missed Cal’s last three games against Fresno State, San Jose State and Seattle with a broken nose and concussion.

The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for Vanover, who was beginning to hit his stride. Before exiting the game, Vanover posted a career-high 7 points along with two rebounds and a block in only 11 minutes.

Vanover had been a deadly weapon for the Bears in limited spurts, being the only reserve to score in every game before earning a promotion to the starting lineup. Even when he returns to the hardwood, the aftereffects from the injury may linger and hinder his performance.

Conference of champions?

Conference play isn’t expected to shake out in Cal’s favor. KenPom only projects the team to win one game in conference play. ESPN doesn’t favor Cal in any conference games.

It doesn’t help the Bears that conference play is an entirely different animal. By the time the ball gets rolling, every team has a strong knowledge of each others’ personnel and scheme, which typically results in some type of regression.

If there’s any silver lining for Cal, it’s the vulnerability of the Pac-12, which just finished with the worst nonconference record in a single December by a Power Five conference in the last 20 years.

USC and Oregon have both been banged up. UCLA fired head coach Steve Alford. Washington hasn’t made the leap. Colorado, Oregon State and Washington State have benefitted from some weak competition.

Conference play won’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination, but multiple teams are vulnerable. Cal will be at a disadvantage from a talent standpoint, but if there was ever an opportunity to steal some wins, this is the season.

That being said, flirting with a winless record in conference play shouldn’t be out of the question. Last season, Cal needed a heroic second half to beat Stanford on the road and Okoroh to play the game of his life to beat Oregon State at home for the team’s only two conference wins.

Also working against the Bears’ favor is that multiple teams with tournament aspirations have something to prove.

It may sound cliché, but only one of Oregon, Washington, UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona will win the conference championship and secure an automatic bid. The others will have to rely on their resumes in conference play and hope their performances against familiar opponents were enough to wash away the sins of this past November and December, lest they want to be snubbed.

The first five games of conference play will serve as a barometer for where this team stands. Cal will travel down to Los Angeles to play USC and UCLA before coming back up to Berkeley to battle Arizona State and Arizona, a quartet of top-100 opponents right off the bat. The first realistically winnable game comes Jan. 17: a road game against Washington State.

Whether or not the Bears win these games — they’re not favored in any of those games — a win won’t be what to watch for.

It’ll be how they play, how they handle high-level talent, how they respond to runs and road environments. And if Cal comes out lethargic, lifeless and devoid of energy, both in those five games and throughout conference play, the writing on the wall may finally be legible enough for Jim Knowlton to make his first big coaching decision as Cal’s athletic director.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.