BERKELEY -- Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Media Day on Thursday marks the unofficial start to the 2014-15 season, and with it, the first season for California under new head coach Cuonzo Martin. The atmosphere inside Haas Pavilion is different this year, and not only because of the departures of point guard Justin Cobbs and center Richard Solomon.
“If you look at all the coaches, they bring that same mentality: There’s no dip in intensity,” says senior big man David Kravish, who got engaged this offseason in June, and will say his I-do’s in August. “Guys are working really hard, and I think we’re really benefitting from that.
“It might just be the intensity that coach Martin brings, the intensity that’s brought day-in and day-out to really everything is probably the biggest difference [from last year].”
Kravish now is not only the elder statesman for the Bears, but the only big man with experience on the Cal roster, with the injury to Kameron Rooks.
“It hurts losing Kameron, because that takes away guy who had some experience, who could have added some stuff to the team,” says Kravish. “But, coach Martin has us working hard, and every guy from one to however many we have on the roster is capable of playing, so I’m not worried about anything like that.”
Martin, though, has a plan for the inside, centering (no pun intended) on Kravish, Christian Behrens (now sans knee brace) and 6-foot-6 Cornell graduate transfer Dwight Tarwater.
“The only difference, as opposed to my team last year, is we had two traditional big guys,” says Martin. “They weren’t really shooters, but they could handle on the perimeter and they were very physical on the blocks and they demanded that post space and made plays. The difference now is, you don’t have a traditional low-post guy you can go down to for production every time down, which is fine. We’ve played four perimeter guys, we’ve played one big. I think David’s a guy who can score on the block, but he’s also a guy who can really face up and make plays. I think, when that happens, it helps us offensively, because now you can open up the perimeter and guys can penetrate and make plays.”
Last season, Martin had the luxury of having big men who could rebound, and now, that duty has fallen on the outside players, as well. “Everybody has to rebound for us,” says Martin, who is nothing if not versatile.
“I’ve played it both ways,” he says. “I think you have to be prepared to play two traditional bigs, one big guy, but either way, it’s fine. The bottom line is having talent and putting them in position to be successful.”
“Dwight Tarwater, who came in from Cornell, he’s got a really good step-away game, and he plays really hard, really strong, physical,” says Kravish. “Christian is without his knee brace now, so he’s looking really good. He looks like he’s actually comfortable, not like he’s struggling at all out there. He’s been really doing well in practice.”
Tarwater may not play bigger than his 6-foot-6 height, but he will play smarter, and his 230-pound bulk inside will be welcome against some of the weightier bigs in the conference.
“That’s just how he is,” Kravish says.
Kravish has put on even more weight, and is now a solid 238 pounds (“I never would have guessed,” Kravish says, of weighing that much, after coming in at 195), thanks to working with strength coach Nicodemus Christopher, who has also added 10 pounds to Jabari Bird.
“Working with these guys is great,” Kravish says. “Coach Nic’s really intense in the weight room, and on the court, too, and so is coach Martin.”
Martin himself actually works with his charges in the weight room, and it’s left a mark.
“Especially when he’s going crazy on the punching bag, it’s pretty great,” says Kravish, who admits to feeling a bit intimidated by his new skipper. “You see him working hard, so if he’s holding himself to the same standard he holds you, it makes it easier.”
The strength and experience that Kravish now possesses, has given him much more confidence as the only senior on the roster
“It’s the last year, so I’ve kind of been around for a while, and kind of know what to expect, and the guys are really happy with the direction the team’s going and how the team gets along,” says Kravish. “It just makes it really easy to just go out there and play as hard as I can and do what I need to do.”
As the only fourth-year Bear, Martin has leaned on Kravish a bit in the early goings.
Kravish has taken to that charge with great aplomb.
“I hold myself to a high standard, so it makes it easy when, if somebody messes up or whatever happens, if someone’s not going hard, it makes it easy for them, because I’m going hard, so if I have to tell them to go hard, I have to go hard, myself,” Kravish says. “It’s one of those things that I’m doing. Also, off-the-court stuff, I’m constantly texting guys and reminding them to do things, and remind them to be certain places on-time. When we’re waking up at five in the morning, knocking on windows, making sure everybody’s getting up and stuff like that.”
Most of the players live in close proximity to one another, and hang out together away from basketball, which has helped to greatly improve team chemistry.
“It’s probably the best since I’ve been here,” says Kravish. “We’re always hanging out. Everybody’s door’s always open, so everybody hangs out. One day I can be with four or five guys, and then I can be with four or five of the other guys the next day for five hours at a time, so everybody’s just with each other all the time.”
Despite his now-advanced age, Kravish certainly doesn’t feel like the Old Guy,
“I don’t feel it yet,” Kravish laughs. “Sometimes, I’ll sit back and be like, ‘Wow, I’m three or four years older than a lot of these guys,’ but I don’t really feel with it.”
Although Cal is shorthanded in the big man department, Kravish thinks the Bears can surprise some folks.
“We’re going to be really good, I think,” he says. “Coach Martin’s really working us hard. He’s pushing us to be the best we can be, and I think he’s really developing the skills that we need to develop. We’re working really hard on defense, working really hard on endurance and stuff like that.”
New to practice: Whole-team agility work and running. Bigs and guards work together and against one another, and sometimes, the entire team dons weight vests. There are push-ups after certain drills, every drill is made competitive, and there are more five-on-five or three-on-three periods than last season. If a player loses a one-on-one, they run suicides. Martin says that his staff puts a premium on taking care of the basketball. “This is what we need to do to be successful,” Martin says.
The team motto? Together, we attack.
“I think that’s really what we needed, last year coming into this year,” Kravish says. “He’s really bringing that to us. There’s a natural progression from the higher intensity and the higher level of mental and physical toughness, being able to run the court faster, move the ball around a little quicker, so I think that’s just a natural progression.”
Since the Bears began practice two weeks ago, Kravish says, work on the court has been “very physically trying.”
“They’ve pushed everybody about as far as everybody thought they could go, and father,” Kravish continues. “Everybody knows what’s expected. We’ve known what’s expected from the summer, so they’re really getting the best out of us. Everybody, it’s a challenge. We’ve got a bunch of guys that love challenges and take them on, so it’s good.”
What has the staff done to increase that level of physicality? They get after it in drills, for one.
“I mean, look at them,” Kravish laughs, gesturing to the decidedly younger staff. “Look at our coaches. They’re all pretty physical. We’ve got some physically-fit guys, so when they get out there and they’re pushing you, you definitely feel it. I feel, especially now, my senior year and having put on a lot more weight, I’m already getting a lot more comfortable with the banging around, and I’m not opposed to it; I never have been. I’ve just never been at an advantage doing it. I think it’s helped me develop, getting more comfortable with that, since I’ve kind of had to shy away from that before.”
“That’s who we are,” says Martin, who, beyond his imposing baritone, is monolithic on the court.
“I just think that’s who we are,” Martin says. “You have to have a level of toughness, and we talk about being physical without fouling; don’t get out of control, not a lot of chaos, but discipline in being physical in what you’re doing, understand where you’re supposed to be, carving out space on both ends of the floor. You’ve got to be physical, getting open on the perimeter, getting open in the post. Also, you’ve got to be physical on the defensive side of the ball, really protect the lane.”
That defending the lane will fall squarely on Kravish’s now-broader shoulders.
“I think he’s good because he’s been coached,” Martin says. “He’s a hard-nosed guy. He wants to be good. I don’t think you have to necessarily be so big to be physical. I think the biggest key is not to be injured, but you still have to play hard. The game is played the same way: You have to be physical. I think he’s always had the mindset, but for me, it’s getting him out of his comfort zone to make him understand that this is what we need him to do in order for us to be successful. He’ll have a level of success because of that.”