All I could think while watching Cal dismantle Syracuse last night was Mike Montgomery must have actually wanted to spend more time with his family. After an unsuccessful stint in the NBA, the former Stanford coach had moved across the Bay and revitalized the Cal program. He was headed into his fifth season in Berkeley and he had everything going in the right direction. As a coach, this is not a team you would have an easy time walking away from - Cal has all the pieces to be a really good team.
The way they beat Syracuse gave proof to the idea that rankings are essentially meaningless this early in the season. They were clearly the more talented team, opening up a 34-22 half-time lead and never looking back from there, winning the game 73-59. It took them awhile to get used to the Syracuse zone, but they eventually figured things out. They are a veteran team with a lot of guys who know how to play the game - they can move without the ball and make plays for each other. This is not a team to be taken lightly.
Cuonzo Martin could not be in a better position to succeed. He inherits a ready-made team with multiple NBA prospects on it, all of whom can play multiple positions. They have more skill than the teams he assembled in Tennessee, which generally preferred to smash you over the head and win 54-50 rock-fights. It wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, but he got a pretty raw deal at Tennessee. He's a good coach who knows what he is doing and he isn't going to do anything to mess up the gifts he has been given.
Cal lost two good seniors - Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon - but it may have been a case of addition by subtraction, as it has allowed some of their younger players to step into bigger roles. They go 6'5, 6'3 and 6'6 on the perimeter and all of them are NBA-caliber athletes. They have two sure-fire future pros in Jabari Bird and Tyrone Wallace and at least three more guys who will get looks from NBA scouts. You may not have heard much about Cal, but this is a win that would look awfully good on the resume in March.
PG - Tyrone Wallace - Wallace is the guy who stepped up the most, going from complementary wing to full-time starting PG. He doesn't have a ton of experience in the role, but he's a huge guard (6'5 200) with the ball-handling and passing chops to pull it off. He is putting out straight outrageous numbers so far, at 17 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists on 51% shooting. You want to make him an outside shooter - he was 0-3 from deep and one of those shots was an airball. He might cough up the ball if you pressure him, but you don't want to get him in the open court either.
SG - Jordan Matthews - Position labels are a little meaningless for Cal's guards, since they can all handle and score the ball and they are capable of handing off defensive assignments pretty freely. At 6'3 205, Matthews is the smallest of the their perimeter starters, even though he would be one of the bigger guards on the Texas roster. He's the scorer - he can shoot and fill it up really quickly. He had 22 points against Syracuse and his ability to shoot and get to the line was key in blowing the game open.
SF - Jabari Bird - The shooter. If you leave him open from the perimeter, he will kill you. The problem is that he's a big, athletic guard (6'6 200) with a high release point, so it's almost impossible to contest his shot. He destroyed the Syracuse zone, going 4-5 from 3. You better play scouting report defense on Bird - stay glued to him on the perimeter, make him put the ball on the floor and make him be a passer. He will be a first-round pick regardless, how high he goes depends on how much he can expand his game.
PF - Christian Behrens - 6'8 225 junior forward. Behrens is the glue guy - he gives up his body and does a lot of the dirty work inside. He can be effective as a release valve on offense, but he's not going to kill you on that side of the ball. It will be interesting to see if Martin plays Behrens as a 3 to match-up with the bigger Texas front-line.
C - David Kravish - The senior big man had himself a game against Syracuse - 12 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists on 5-9 shooting. He is a prototype high-post player, with the ability to knock down mid-range shots, facilitate offense from the free-throw line and even put the ball on the floor a little. At 6'10 240, he's a better athlete than you would expect and he has turned himself into a legitimate NBA prospect. The way you get at him is on defense because that's not really what he is about. Attack the rim and get him in foul trouble.
C - Kingsley Okoroh - A big-time recruit that Martin brought with him from Tennessee, emphasis on big. At 7'1 245, he is, by my scientific estimation, big as fuck. I'm not really sure what to make of him because he didn't really play like a freshman against Syracuse. It was weird. He can move without the ball, catch and finish at the rim, which doesn't sound like a big deal, but really is for a guy his size. If they can get him going, his ability to protect the rim could take this team to another level.
PG/SG - Sam Singer - You would think this guy is a shooter just from looking at him, but that is not the case. Singer can't shoot to save his life, as he went 0-3 from 3 against Syracuse, including one particularly egregious air-ball. What he is is a big PG (6'4 200) with a good feel for the game who can take advantage of all the weapons around him. He had 8 assists against the Orange.
SF/PF - Dwight Tarwater - A senior role player who knows his role and stays out of everyone else's way. Tarwater can make open shots and that's about it. This is way more shooting that Cuonzo ever had at Tennessee - it may be something that starts to grow on him.
SF/PF - Roger Moute a Bidias - I don't really remember what he did in this game and his 9 trillion stat-line would indicate that I didn't miss much. He's an athletic body (6'6 200) whose useful as a second front-court defender behind Behrens.
Keys to the Game:
1) The first half of the Iowa game was a worst case scenario for this Texas team and they can't have a repeat of that tonight. If the Texas guards get sped up and get into a track meet with Cal, I don't think they have the personnel to keep up. Wallace, Bird and Matthews have more speed and athleticism than the perimeter guys at Kentucky, so this will be a real challenge for the Longhorns guards. Texas still has an advantage inside, but that won't matter if the guards don't take care of the ball and control tempo.
2) The converse of staying in the half-court on offense is that you don't want Cal getting a lot of easy looks in transition. If they can start running into rhythm 3's, this game could get out of hand. You got to make them score against a set defense and you want to make sure that you are letting the right guys shoot 3's and not the wrong ones.
3) Jonathan Holmes - He is the one guy that Cal doesn't really have a great match-up for. If he can thrive as a SF and force Cal out of their three-guard comfort zone, he can really alter the flow of the game. Get him the ball as much as possible is probably a good rule of thumb for a game like this.
You can pretty much throw out the rankings in this one. Cal starts a senior, two juniors and two sophomores and four of those guys are NBA prospects. I hope Texas is ready to play because this should be a really serious basketball game.