Asked if he could see his current team being an NCAA Tournament-caliber group, Martin didn’t hem and haw.
“Oh, without a doubt,” Martin said quickly, before touching on one very important factor. “I think, if we can stay healthy and continue to get better, strengthen our offense, continue to gain confidence, I think we’ll have the necessary tools. We’ve got to stay healthy.”
As the Bears’ get set to host No. 19 Washington on Friday night at 7 p.m. live on the Pac-12 Networks, health has certainly not been on their side, at least since a Nov. 30 win over Fresno State. That game saw sophomore Jabari Bird -- who was averaging 11.7 points per game at the time – go down with a stress fracture in his foot. Before Bird went down, Cal (10-3) was 1-1 against ranked teams, undefeated at home and averaging 75 points per game. Since then, the Bears are averaging 63 points per game, and take two straight losses into Friday night’s tilt with the 11-1 Huskies, which, like Cal, suffered an embarrassing loss last week. While the Bears dropped a home contest to two-win Cal State Bakersfield, Washington fell to Stony Brook for the Seawolves’ first ever win over a ranked team.
Following the loss to Stony Book, Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said that losses like that mean that “there is something going on.” While at the time he spoke to the media, he hadn’t watched Cal’s stunning loss enough to ascertain what that “something” was, he did opine on what caused his Huskies to stub their toes.
“I have not been able to solve it,” Romar said. “Usually, when a team comes out and they play totally uncharacteristic of how they’ve played, sometimes it’s an internal strife going on, or sometimes, there are final exams and everybody was involved in that, or whatever it is, I don’t think, in our case, I believe, hopefully, that it was an aberration, than something that’s going to be a pattern. We have not done that the entire year. Whatever it was, I haven’t been able to put my finger on it, but whatever it was, we weren’t right.”
For Cal, the loss played out much like the last several games have – with limited offensive options beyond Tyrone Wallace, who’s averaging 19.2 points per game (second in the conference), 8.8 rebounds (third in the conference) and 4.08 assists (seventh in the conference).
“I won’t say it has totally surprised me,” Romar said of Wallace’s emergence. “I didn’t know he would be going out and getting over eight rebounds a game, and he’s shooting a high field goal percentage from three, and those are things that he’s worked on to become better. When we’ve played them in the past, he’s been a guy who has hurt us.
“We’re not totally surprised, because he’s always played well against us. He has the ball in his hand now, to make decisions, and he’s obviously very comfortable in that role.”
Bird’s loss has been keenly felt, to say the least, from the pace of the offense to the balance of minutes, with sophomore Sam Singer stepping into the starting lineup, averaging 3.8 points per game and shooting 39% from the field, replacing Bird’s 49%.
Best-case scenario, Bird is back in two weeks, but Martin does not want to rush his young star. Bird has not yet practiced, and may not be game-ready even if he’s cleared to play in two weeks.
“We weren’t flowing like I thought we could,” Martin said of the team sans-Bird. “If you lose a major piece of what you’re trying to do offensively, and you run certain plays for him, there’s also another presence on the floor that makes shots and is a threat. Now, you put up other guys in that role, who have been used to playing 10, 12, 15 minutes, and now, they’re playing 25, 30-plus minutes. You have to get used to that and get used to being that guy where the team is flowing through you, now. You have to be confident, you have to be aggressive and look for your offense.”
Aggressiveness is the name of the game for the Bears, particularly when it comes to Singer, Kravish and Jordan Mathews, who’s been off shooting the three ball lately (5-for-22 in his last six games, down from a 38.2% career mark from three), but who the Huskies are absolutely not going to ignore.
“Wallace is a big-time basketball player, a big-time guard, and Jordan Mathews is so streaky; if he gets on a roll, he can go out and get 30, like he did when he was a freshman,” Romar said. “We have to be able to score, because they’re going to guard you. They’re really going to guard you well.”
Last time out, Washington was, in Romar’s words, “extremely lethargic on the defensive end,” just as Cal was on the offensive side in their loss to the Roadrunners.
“They were shooting 17, 18 percent early, and it was fool’s gold, on defense, on our end, because they were getting wide-open looks,” Romar said. “We saw that in the game, we watched the film and we saw the same thing. It was disappointing. It hadn’t been the case, all year.”
In fact, Washington leads the conference in opponent shooting percentage, holding foes to 33.9% from the floor – best in the conference. The Bears rank fifth in that category, with 38.0%.
In Martin’s mind, Romar will have the shakes out of his troops by the time they get to Haas Pavilion, led by guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who’s averaging 13.6 points and a conference-best 6.67 assists per game.
“Coach Romar’s a very good coach and puts his team in position to be successful, and they have, in my opinion, one of the best point guards in the country, as far as his ability to rebound and score the ball and facilitate the offense and he has a demanding presence on the floor,” said Martin. “That’s why they’re one of the best teams in the country: They present many different challenges on both sides of the ball.”