BERKELEY – On Thursday evening at 6:30 pm Pacific, the California men’s basketball team will face their first true test of the young season under new coach Cuonzo Martin. The Bears will travel to New York City to face their old nemesis -- No. 24 Syracuse -- under the bright lights of the mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden, in the 2K Classic.
“It’s a really historic place and a lot has happened there in the sports world,” said senior center David Kravish. “I’m really excited to go there just because I’ve never been to New York before and because of all the history. When coach [Mike] Montgomery came on the home visit, he told me we were playing in Kansas City, Anaheim, Hawaii, and New York, so I’ve been thinking about it for awhile.”
The 2K Classic, which benefits the Wounded Warriors project, serves as a warm up tournament for the season, inviting Cal and three ranked teams – No. 10 Texas, No. 25 Iowa and the Orange – to compete for an early season title.
“I think having a good tournament in New York would be huge for us,” said Kravish. “[This tournament] is to show where we are, and all the work we put in. We’re not putting all this work in to finish in the middle, we’re not putting all this work in to finish last or lose games. We’ve been working really hard, we’ve had a lot of early mornings, a lot of running and conditioning. We’re not doing it to finish in the middle.”
The Bears have begun the season by easily crushing southern schools Alcorn State and Kennesaw State by 34 points each, with Martin’s high-tempo offense putting up points in bunches. Cal looked strong defensively as well, starting both games on significant runs, and using their athleticism as well as the occasional zone to stifle opponents.
Thus far, the Bears have been led early by point guard Tyrone Wallace, who has average 20 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, as he hopes to take on heavier workload with the departures of Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon. Sophomore Jabari Bird will also hope to rebound from a disappointing first season, and prove his worth as a McDonald’s All-American, averaging 13.5, 5, and 5 respectively through the first two games.
Cal will have its hands full with two tough games in the Big Apple, as they start with a battle against the Orange, who has beaten the Bears in each of the last two seasons. Syracuse, who similarly beat Kennesaw State 89-42, will, for all intents and purposes, be playing a home game, with MSG located just a four-hour drive away from campus.
“You got to bring the same mindset to every game,” said Kravish on the increasing level of competition. “It’s not what’s on your opponents jersey, it’s about what you’re bringing. It’s about who you’re representing – you’re teammates, you’re representing Cal. You have to bring your best effort, you have to play your toughest and you’re hardest every single minute of every game.”
The Orange and coach Jim Boeheim bring their trademark 2-3 zone, forcing the opposing team to make tough shots in the corners. Cal knows this all too well, but has traditionally struggled against it, making Martin’s pre-game adjustments all the more important.
“[With] that zone, they’re not going to surprise you with how they’re going to play defense,” said Kravish. “That’s what they do and they try to bait you into the corners, and use their length to turn you over. We’ve played them a couple of times, and everyone on the team has played them at least once except for the freshman.”
Despite losing star players Tyler Ennis, Jerami Grant, and C.J. Fair to the NBA, Syracuse has more than reloaded with power forward Chris McCullough and point guard Kaleb Joseph, adding two more All-Americans to the starting lineup. Through their first two 2K Classic games, the Orange have been led by returning center Rakeem Christmas, who contributed 18 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, as well as McCullough, who has averaged 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds a game.
“I remember thinking we should have beaten [Syracuse] both times, said Kravish. “I remember last year in Hawaii, I thought we had it, but we had to play some freshman in some big minutes and I thought they played well but we didn’t have Rich. I definitely think we have a good team so we’ll compete.”
Facing a tough Syracuse team as well as another ranked team, Cal will face a very difficult battle to return to Berkeley with a 2K Classic title heading into Pac-12 play.
“You don’t go into the season hoping to do anything; you go in expecting to win,” Kravis said. “You don’t try; you do.”