The night that the California men’s basketball team won its 10th game, getting off to the program’s best start in 55 years, head coach Cuonzo Martin didn’t sleep much.
“Just a little bit,” he says. “This time of year, you don’t get a lot of sleep, anyway.”
The first-year Bears skipper got to work quickly on studying tape of No. 5 Wisconsin, who will be the second top-10 team Cal will face this young season when they come in to Haas Pavilion on Monday at 6 p.m.
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“You start practice Oct. 3, and you practice to beat the best team in the country,” Martin says. “You don’t practice to beat yourself. You practice to play against the best and win those games. For us, we need to play the way we know how to play.”
The last time the Bears squared off against a top-10 team, they folded against then-No. 10 Texas at Madison Square Garden in the 2K Classic, losing 71-55.
“I think the Texas game, I think we walked away from the Texas game and felt like we could have played better; not saying whether or not we could have won the game, but they felt like they could have played better, as individuals and as a team,” Martin says. “We came up short in that game. Now, playing against Wisconsin, our guys know they’re very talented. We have some guys who played against Wisconsin a couple of years ago, so they know what Wisconsin brings to the table. For us, it’s playing the way we’re capable of playing. I think what we found in the last couple games against Princeton and Eastern Washington, were big guys that go inside, go outside to shoot threes, guards post up, so you saw a lot of different things that help in preparation for Wisconsin, who have big guys on the perimeter and guards who post up, and vice versa.”
On Monday, Cal – at 10-1, having won seven straight games -- will get another crack at the top of the heap.
“You have a team that’s got a starting five that, each one is shooting 47 percent-plus from the field,” says Martin. “They do a great job of shooting three-pointers, and you have Frank Kaminsky, who’s a seven-foot center shooting 42 percent from three, and he’s shot 30-plus.”
Kaminsky – a senior who’s played in 105 games (40 starts) has 29 career double-digit scoring games – was tabbed the 2015 preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, coming off a 2014 NCAA Tournament West Region Most Outstanding Player nod. He was also named a 2014 First-Team All-Big Ten player, and set the Wisconsin single-game scoring record with 43 points against North Dakota in 2013.
His 66 blocks in the 2013-14 season are tied for third all-time in Badgers single-season history.
“He has so many ways he can score the basketball,” Martin says. “He’s a very unselfish basketball player, but he also does a great job on offensive rebounds.”
The Badgers’ only loss this season has come at the hands of Duke, which switched off of screens at every turn, placing 6-foot-1 freshman guard Tyus Jones on Kaminsky for much of the game. Could that be the plan for Cal point guard Tyrone Wallace?
“I think you look at all the options,” says Martin. “I think you have to try different things. If you play a traditional style in how you defend guards, it’s going to be a long night for you, because big guys make shots and the guards can turn the corner, so I think, for us, it’s trying a couple of different things, switch the game up, give them different looks. I don’t think you can give these guys the same look defensively every time out. Your ball screen coverage, you’ve got to mix that up a little bit.”
Kaminsky is far from alone in the front-court. 6-foot-9, 230-pound Sam Dekker and 6-foot-8, 235-pound Nigel Hayes join Kaminsky in averaging double figures in scoring.
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“They’ll post their guards up; on their team, they post everyone up,” says Martin. “Their bigs, everybody shoots three-point shots, so you have to be able to cover at a high level. There’s a reason why they’re a top-five team in the country, because they have so many parts, and they play well at both ends of the floor. We have to be locked in from start to finish.”
One of the guards who you’ll see posting up is Traevon Jackson a bull-strong, 6-foot-2, 208-pound senior guard out of Westerville, Ohio.
“He’s tough,” Martin says. “He’s tough, hard-nosed, has great genes (his father Jimmy was the fourth overall pick in the 1992 draft). He knows how to play, knows how to get to the rim, very shifty with the basketball. He has good hesitation dribbles, a good pull-up game, he’s strong around the post, and is one of those guys that will get you in the post. He can make plays, he’ll get you in the post, he can probe the defense, find the guys on the perimeter to make plays. He’s a tough, hard-nosed guy, and any time you can be a starter on a team of that caliber for a couple of years, you understand you’re playing at a high level. He knows how to play the game. He’s not one of those guys that will get riled up in any situation.”
The Badgers present a unique challenge in their swing offense – a four-out system in which all players are essentially interchangeable, with spacing, screening and cutting paramount to its success. As Martin notes, all five players learn to post up inside. So far this season, the Bears are 20th in the nation in percentage of opponent shots coming on two-point jumpers, as opposed to shots at the rim or from beyond the three-point arc, and block 11.1% of those two-point jumpers (51st in the nation), but Wisconsin gets 41.4% of its shots at the rim, shooting 61.5% on those shots. For comparison’s sake, Cal, according to advanced metrics, is better, percentage-wise, inside, hitting 67.7% of shots at the rim, though only 31.2% of their shots come from the low post.
“I think the thing that makes it hard to defend is their personnel,” Martin says. “If you have your big guys, most big guys run to the rim and play around the rim, but their big guys play around the perimeter, and they post up some. Most times, a lot of guards aren’t used to playing post defense, because you don’t do that a lot, and their guards post up, so it’s something you’re not used to doing on a consistent basis. We have to do a great job as far as playing post defense, and you have to do a great job of big guys playing on the perimeter.”
Martin says that David Kravish and Christian Behrens have improved their post defense every game, and with Behrens, it’s been very easy to see that improvement. Offensively, Behrens has set or tied career scoring highs in each of his last three games, blowing the doors off his previous high with 20 points on Friday.
Behrens tallied five defensive rebounds of his eight total on Friday, tallied three of his four rebounds against Princeton on the defensive end (and added a steal), and notched a block and three defensive boards of his eight total against Wyoming.
“They’ve gotten better and better every game fitting on the perimeter, chasing guys on the perimeter and fighting through ball screens,” Martin says. “They’ll do that at a high level against Wisconsin.”
Kravish has been more of a mixed bag of late. Against Wyoming and Nevada, Kravish shot just 7-for-23, and after going 5-for-8 against Princeton, he had just two field goal attempts on Friday against Eastern Washington, and spent most of the game in foul trouble, playing just 18 minutes, though he did grab five rebounds.
“I didn’t realize Dave only took two shots until the game was over, and I saw the stat sheet,” Martin says. “Part of it was he couldn’t get into a real flow because of foul trouble. I just think Dave has to be aggressive, and be assertive, looking for his offense, being under control, taking what the defense gives him, and it’ll come to him. I’m not really worried about Dave from that standpoint. We need to get him more looks, get him touches and get him situations where he can score the ball. We need his production if we want to win at a high level.”
Behrens’s emergence has in some part mitigated Kravish’s struggles, but that doesn’t mean that Martin wouldn’t rather have two productive bodies down low instead of one.
“It helps, because we won the game, but we watch the film as a staff and say, ‘What do we need to do to get Dave the ball better? What’s the best way for him to score? If they double-team, how do we get him in position to score the ball?’” Martin says. “But, he’s also got to be assertive in the rebounding. In some of those situations, Christian got offensive rebounds, and I think that’s the key – to get offensive rebounds and do it without fouling. That’s the other way to score the ball, so we don’t have to get him the ball for him to score. He’s got to be assertive in attacking the glass and getting rebounds.”
A NOTE ON ATTENDANCE
In seven home dates this season, the Bears have drawn just 44,570 fans – 6,367 per game – to the 11,877-seat Haas Pavilion.
“I’m not disappointed, not at all,” Martin says. “I think, as a fan, you have a right to choose to attend games. The thing I always say, is I applaud and appreciate the ones that do come to the games. We can’t consume ourselves with people that don’t come to the game, because I think you shortchange the ones that do attend the games. I think that’s the most important thing for me, is to applaud the ones that attend. You have various reasons why some people can’t make games, but the ones that do make the games, you see a team that competes hard, and I think they should be rewarded for their hard work. If it’s your team, then support your team.”
Has the lack of attendance – bemoaned for years by former head coach Mike Montgomery -- surprised Martin?
“Not at all,” Martin says. “My focus is on the floor, and on the guys that are playing the game. That’s what I’m consumed with.”