How California Has Become One of the Hottest Teams in College Basketball

Jaylen Brown

How California Has Become One of the Hottest Teams in College Basketball

The Golden Bears are getting hot at the right time. Will it be enough to carry them to a Final Four?

I mentioned Cal before the season as a team to keep an eye on, but for the first part of the season, the Bears were not quite that; they were inconsistent, sloppy, and failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon them before the season. But in recent weeks, the Golden Bears have turned things around. They’re 21-8 overall and 11-5 in the PAC-12, as a 7-0 month of February has propelled them to number 25 in the AP poll and third in the conference with two games to play before the conference tournament.

Part of Cal’s recent success has been its dominance at home. The Bears pounded USC Sunday night to finish the season 18-0 at home for the first time in school history. And that game was no fluke, either; Cal has outscored opponents by an average of nearly 16 points per game at home, and over 14 points per game during its current seven-game winning streak. But the question about the Golden Bears is, and has been all season: Can they win on the road?

Cuonzo Martin’s squad has won its last two road games (against Washington and Washington State), but the team’s portability will really be put to the test on Thursday at #18 Arizona before closing the season at Arizona State. Arizona has been volatile recently, losing their last two games (both on the road), and the Golden Bears have already beaten the Wildcats once this season, so they may be catching the Cats at the right time. Still, a win over a top-25 team is nothing to scoff at, and Cal might need it to win favor with the selection committee.

So why have the Bears been so good? How have they managed to go from fringe tournament team to one of the nation’s hottest teams? Well, their unyielding defense has certainly played a role. Cal has one of the stingiest defenses in the PAC-12, holding opponents to under 39% from the field and posting a team defensive rating of 96.7. They have good athletes to lock down the perimeter and ample size inside to protect the rim control the boards (Cal’s +7.1 rebound margin is one of the best in Division I), making them extremely tough to score on.

One of the key reasons for the outstanding defense has been the improved depth of the team. The Bears have eight solid rotation players who are capable of contributing big minutes in any given game. Behemoths Kameron Rooks (7’0”) and Kingsley Okoroh (7’1”) have stepped up and earned valuable minutes at center, averaging a combined 4.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks in 26.5 minutes per game. That may not seem like a whole lot of production, but having two huge presences inside affords Cuonzo Martin the luxury of slotting Ivan Rabb at power forward and Jaylen Brown on the wing (their natural positions), giving Cal an NBA-sized starting lineup.

In addition to the bigs, there has also been an increase in production from wings Jordan Matthews and Jabari Bird. The two junior guards are combining for over 23 points per game, and either is capable of going for 20 or more on any given night. Matthews has been lethal from beyond the arc all season, averaging 13 points per game and leading the team in both three-point percentage (43.6) and free throw percentage (79.1). Bird took a while to get it going, but has been on fire over the past few games, exploding for 20-plus three times. “The game has been easy the past few weeks for me,” Bird said. “With so many other options on the floor to pay attention to, I think teams kind of forget I’m out there, and I kind of like that… I just feel more confident in my game right now.” It will be important for Bird to carry that confidence, and stellar performance, through the PAC-12 and NCAA tournaments if Cal hopes to stay in its current form.

Cal has also gotten exceptional play at the point guard position during its seven-game streak. When Tyrone Wallace went down with a hand injury, backup point guard Sam Singer proved himself a viable option off the bench, averaging five assists per game in his eight starts. If Singer can continue to come off the bench and set up his teammates effectively, he’ll continue to be a crucial piece of Cal’s team in the NCAA tournament. Wallace, on the other hand (no pun intended), has been marvelous since his return from injury, and coincidentally, the team is undefeated since he came back. Wallace, the only senior in the regular rotation, is the heartbeat of the team, and provides versatility and veteran leadership on the court.

And then there’s Jaylen Brown, the freshman superstar who has steadily and quietly come into his own and become one of the best players in the PAC-12. Brown is a lottery-level talent with almost limitless upside, and he’s put some of his potential on display this season. He leads the Bears in scoring at just under 16 points a game and is the second-leading rebounder, averaging 5.7 per contest. He still occasionally struggles with turnovers, decision-making, and foul trouble, but there have been clear signs of improvement in those areas in the last couple of weeks; and while he’s not a great shooter, he’s capable of stepping out and hitting a jumper, and when he doesn’t have it going from the outside, he makes up for it with superlative athleticism and skill.

Brown also makes Cal’s small ball lineup particularly potent. As good as Rooks and Okoroh have been, playing Brown as a stretch four and sliding Rabb to the five might be Martin’s best lineup during crunch time. Defensively, the five-man combo of Brown, Rabb, Bird, Matthews, and Wallace can switch 1-4 and really lock up on the perimeter while Rabb holds down the middle; offensively, it allows the Bears to push the ball in transition and open up the floor for Brown and Wallace to create while the others spot up for open threes (or in Rabb’s case, drop-off passes). This is a look that Martin will likely go to a lot once rotations shorten in the postseason.

The bottom line is that everything the Bears want to do both offensively and defensively hinges on Brown[1], and if Cal hopes to make a run in the NCAA tournament, he will have to play his best basketball and prove why he’s a future lottery pick.

California is getting hot at just the right time, and a strong showing in the PAC-12 tournament could boost them as high as a three or four seed in the NCAA tournament. Tyrone Wallace says he feels the team is capable of doing big things in March. “I think we’ve grown a lot,” he said in a press conference this past week. “I think at this point in the season we’re starting to play some of our best basketball.” The Bears still need to prove that they can win away from Haas Pavilion, but if they do, they will play their way into an excellent position for the Big Dance. “I think we’re at a good place right now,” Wallace continued, “but there’s definitely work to be done. We can continue to get better, so I think that’s what we’re focused on.” Wallace is right; there’s room for improvement with this team, but college basketball is all about peaking at the right time, and Cal is doing just that. Anything can happen in March Madness, and the Golden Bears have tons of momentum and a chance to make some serious noise.

Stats courtesy of ESPN, NCAA, Sports-Reference, & Calbears.com.

[1] Brown’s 31.5 usage rate is 14th in Division I.

Leave a Reply