There was a different buzz at Pac 12 Men's Basketball Media Day in San Francisco on Thursday. California is on everyone's radar. Head Coach Cuonzo Martin opened his remarks by saying, "Great times for our program, exciting times." The Golden Bears were picked second in the annual media poll, behind perennial power Arizona. And the Wildcats are well aware of the team most expect to challenge for the title this season.
"I think what Cal does is they blend two elements, a lot like we have the last two years in that they have an influx of new talent that are among the best, but also a veteran group that has been coached well, that has been through multiple Pac-12 seasons," said Arizona coach Sean Miller. In fact, Miller has been quoted that Cal should be the favorite for the conference title.
The Bears are clearly not going to sneak up on anybody. Martin and Senior point guard Tyrone Wallace both expressed excitement about the challenge ahead. Wallace stated that he believes this team is "capable" of reaching the Final Four, and while Martin did not talk about wins or championships, he did express a lofty goal: "I want to be the best defensive team in the country," he said.
Last seasons depth-challenged team could not defend at anywhere near that level. "You didn't have enough to do what you wanted to do," said Martin. "Now you have more options to do what you need to do, to play the way you want to play."
More that once during the session, Martin repeated his mantra of "defend, rebound and play hard." The coach's Big Ten roots are always near the surface. "I always want to be the toughest team on the floor," he said. "I think that's where you separate yourself as a man first and foremost."
Wallace is convinced that the improved talent and depth will help Cal improve defensively. "I think we're probably more athletic this year," he said. "So we have a lot of guys that are able to do more on the defensive end, guys that maybe can guard different positions."
There is certainly room for improvement. According to analytics guru Ken Pomeroy, last season's outfit ranked 80th (of 331 teams) in defensive efficiency. That's not terrible, but it is a long way from the top.
The talents of freshman Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb are a big reason for the raised expectations. As Miller noted, they are being added to a veteran group that was signed by previous coach Mike Montgomery. The talent level is unquestionably high, but the team is weeks away from playing a game, and blending the pieces together will not necessarily be an easy task. Martin will need to settle on his usual eight or nine man rotation, and decide when the Bears will go small, and when they will use one of their bigs (Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh).
Wallace will be the key. Martin said, "He's done his best job since I've been a part of the program in leading and it's noticeable. His game is his game." With two freshman expected to play key roles, senior leadership from Wallace will be essential for success.
Martin and Wallace do not seem concerned with the Cal's ability to score the ball. Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird have already demonstrated ability to put points on the board at the Division 1 level. Brown and Rabb come in with major offensive skills. One would expect that defense will be a work in progress in the non-conference part of the schedule. There are not many McDonald's All Americans who excel on defense when they are freshman.
Martin has said that redshirt Junior Stephen Domingo; the transfer from Georgetown may be the best defender on the roster. With the coach's usual emphasis on the defensive end, Domingo should expect to earn significant minutes.
Cal's exhibition game versus Carroll will be Monday, November 9 at 7:00 PM in Haas Pavilion. The non-conference season opens at home with Rice in Berkeley on November 13.