PREVIEW: Bird, Cal Host Stanford

BERKELEY -- Jabari Bird returns to Haas Pavilion for the first time since Nov. 26 as the Bears -- who have lost three in a row and five of their last six -- host rival Stanford.

BERKELEY -- He was only on the floor for eight minutes, but on Sunday, California shooting guard Jabari Bird’s return made the Bears (11-6, 1-3 in Pac-12) very, very different. And head coach Cuonzo Martin most certainly noticed.

“The thing about when certain guys drove his way, his man defended him,” Martin said on Tuesday. “It wasn’t a case of [them] sitting in the lane. You have to go out and guard him.”

Bird said this week that he’ll be “good to go” on Wednesday at 8 p.m., at Haas Pavilion against Stanford (11-4, 3-1).

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“It’ll be a challenge, but I’m looking forward to it,” said Bird. “I’m excited to get back on the court Wednesday. I’ve just got to fight through it and help out as much as possible.”

Bird was out for 41 days with a stress fracture in his left foot, but his experience sitting out four games last year with a sprained right ankle has helped him to get back sooner, and be more ready to make a real difference, as opposed to struggling, as he did when he came back last season, averaging 3.33 points per game over his first nine games back.

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“Just finding my rhythm and conditioning, but it’s nothing new for me. I went through it last year, so I think I should be fine,” Bird said. “I think if I just focus on the defensive end, focus on rebounding, I’ll be fine. Offense will come. I’ve just got to play hard.”

Like Sunday, Bird will come off the bench against the Cardinal, likely helping to change the way Stanford defends the Bears, who now rank 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense.

Without Bird in the game, UCLA was able to collapse on and suffocate leading scorer Tyrone Wallace, limiting him to a season-low four points.

“When you’re watching film, when he drives the ball, there are three guys defending and two bigs hovering on him,” Martin said. “If the perimeter shooter’s not a threat, you probably have four guys around him. He sees it now, on film.”

Though Bird’s first game back was shortened by leg cramps – a result of having just one practice (albeit an eye-opening one, according to Martin) before coming back – he expects to be just the perimeter threat Cal needs against Stanford on Wednesday night at 8 p.m., at Haas Pavilion.

“I’ve got to knock down shots, keep the defense honest, help Tyrone out by doing that,” said Bird. “I’ve got to play defense, I’ve got to rebound the ball and I’ve got to provide some energy off the bench, be a spark.”

As far as Wallace is concerned, he needs to deal with the collapsing defensive schemes better, when Bird isn’t in the game.

“I feel like I’ve been seeing three or four defenders, but great players find a way to get it done,” he said. “I’ve just got to continue to play, find other ways I can be effective. Maybe, I’m not getting the same shots. I’ve got to find other shots, pull-ups, do something different.”

Finding other ways to affect the game was the topic of a one-on-one meeting Wallace had with Martin earlier this week, in which the head coach reminded Wallace – averaging 18.2 points per game (third in the conference) – that scoring doesn’t have to be the only way the junior can affect a game.

“We talk about a lot. That part of the conversation was, he asked me what my gauge was of a good game. I told him, ‘When I’m able to get to my averages and continue to help the team,’ and he said, ‘You can’t effect how shots are going in, but you can always defend, rebound and play hard,’ and I just have to take what the defense gives me,” Wallace said.

One of those ways is passing. With Bird in the game, Wallace has one more viable scoring option besides himself and Jordan Mathews, who’s pacing the league in conference play scoring, averaging 23.8 points per game.

“I think, for him, there might not be as many shots, but more assists, because now, guys are open, and he has to find guys,” Martin said. “I thought he did a great job in the last game of really trying to find guys, forcing himself to find open guys, even though they might not have been there. I thought he made decisions to really get those guys the ball, because the more he does that, and the more those guys are ready – more the bigs, than anything – ready to catch it, shoot, make plays around the rim, eases it up for him.”

While Mathews scored 23 points against the Bruins, he also had five turnovers. Cal has had double-digit turnovers in three of the past five games, and are seventh in the league in turnover margin (-0.9), while the Cardinal are second (+2.6).

Stanford also excels at something Cal has seemingly forgotten since Bird went down: Three-point shooting. In the 10 games Bird missed, the Bears shot 30.1% from three-point range, as opposed to the 39.4% they shot before his injury.

“We’re just not winning. We were winning earlier in the year. Of course, the competition was not as good as it is now, but we kind of got away from little things we did earlier,” Bird said. “We’ve got to get back to boxing out and playing harder, not letting teams score. Teams are scoring at a high rate on us now. We have to get back to the way we used to play when we were winning ballgames. We have to tighten up the screws.”

If Bird can be the perimeter threat he was during the early part of the season, that will help mightily against the Cardinal, which rank 11th in the league in three-point defense.

“I think it’ll help a lot. We’re poor at perimeter shooting, and Jabari can knock down shots. It’ll help us space the floor, and keep other teams honest, so I think it’ll help tremendously,” Wallace said. “Hopefully, I won’t see as many guys in the lane when I’m driving, because they have to honor Jabari and Jordan’s shot-making abilities. We’ll see.”

NOTING THE CARDINAL
Stanford boasts three starters averaging in double figures, led by guard Chasson Randle (19.3) and Anthony Brown (15.0). Brown also pulls down 7.1 rebounds a game, while big man Stefan Nastic hauls in 6.8 per game.

“I know it’s similar to Purdue and Indiana – one of the best in history, a great tradition," Martin said of the rivalry, of which this will be his first taste. "Whenever you say ‘Rivalry,’ then you know what that means. If you don’t know what that means, then you’re probably on another planet.”

When asked to describe the Cardinal, Martin needed just one word to sum up his thoughts: “Talented.”

Randle, Martin continued, is “playing at an MVP level,” ranking second in the conference in scoring, 10th in steals and third in free-throw percentage.

“But,” Martin said, “you have to give Brown his credit, as well. Very talented guy. At 6-6, 6-7, a 2-3, who can catch and shoot, one dribble pull-up shot, fake pull-up, jab, pull-up threes, he can post you up. Nastic’s a very talented big guy. He’s around the rim, he’s physical, he uses his body well. They’ve got great guys. Rosco [Allen]’s playing well 6-9, drives the ball, makes three-point shots. It’s what you get when you get an experienced team. Johnny’s done a great job assembling guys that play well together. That’s what happens: You have experienced guys who’ve been battle tested, and it’s a team that understands what it takes to go into road environments and compete like it’s a home environment. That’s what you get. I’m not surprised.”

QUOTABLE
Cuonzo Martin: “I don't think we’ve lost it; I think we haven’t played consistently. I think, sometimes, when you get consumed with the offense, it feels good, but my job as a coach is to always prepare guys for these types of moments, talking about that this is about to happen, and then, when it happens, it’s like my mom used to always tell me, ‘That’s wet paint over there,’ but I didn’t realize it was wet paint until I touched it. You have to go through it. I don’t necessarily call it rough, because in the process – I’m there with each, individual player in the spring and the summer time and the fall, and every individual, I ask, ‘What happens when adversity hits?’ You have to know your personnel. I think these guys are just making adjustments, trying to find their way. You’ve got two guys that have played major minutes. Everybody else is trying to find their way and make adjustments. You have to go through it, and this is the best way to learn: Under fire. You get better from it.”


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