Cal vs. ASU: If You're Going Through Hell ...

BERKELEY -- Cuonzo Martin wants his Bears to find more toughness, and there's no time like the present as Arizona State and Arizona come to town for a pair of conference games against Cal, which has lost four straight.

BERKELEY -- The California basketball team may not listen to a lot of country music, but there’s a Rodney Atkins song that’s very applicable to what the Bears (who started 10-1, but have since gone 3-6) are going through: If you’re going through Hell, keep on moving. Well, Hell is coming to Haas Pavilion this Thursday at 8 p.m., when the Arizona State Sun Devils come to town.

“You’re coaching a program. You’re not coaching a day or a game. You’re coaching a program. It becomes a way of life. Now, you get them to that level, and they know no other way, mentally and physically,” says Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “They understand what it takes to be a champion, this is what this program is about. In order to be a champion, you have to go through it, before you get to the championship. There’s a fight to get to that point.”

The Bears started Pac-12 play 1-4, losing four straight after downing then-No. 21 Washington. Cal’s toughness has been questioned not only by themselves, but by their coach.

“I think that’s an area we have to grow in,” says Martin. That doesn’t come overnight. That’s certainly something we’re working on. We’re growing, and we’ll get there.”

While Martin may not use the lyrics of that song -- Things go from bad to worse, you think they can’t get worse than that, and then they do -- he does use quotes at the beginning of practice every day to motivate his players. At the top of the practice sheet, the quotes are printed, followed by a single, bolded word: Toughness.

“It’s always on there. It’s always there. Always at the end,” Martin said. “I just think that’s life. Outside of basketball, that’s life. You have to have a level of toughness somewhere. Even if it’s marriage, family, relationships – you go through something – there’s a demand for toughness, to fight through it.”

The Bears will host the Sun Devils on Thursday, followed by a Saturday tilt against Arizona – who Cal beat last season when the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the land. Can Martin pull some of that magic out of this team on Saturday?

“I think, when we get to it, but first and foremost, right now, is Arizona State,” Martin said. “When that game presents itself, we’ll do the things necessary to put us in position to win the game.”

The Sun Devils (9-9, 1-4 in Pac-12 play) is bringing up the rear of the conference, along with the Bears (also 1-4 in conference), having lost Jahii Carson and big man Jordan Bachynski -- two of their most productive players last season. Still, Arizona State’s offense (69.1 ppg) ranks ahead of the Bears’, which is scoring 67.2 points per game (10th in the conference). The Sun Devils are 11th in the conference in field goal percentage (42.9%), but are among the best beyond the arc, sitting in fourth place with a 36.9% mark.

Without Bachynski, though, Arizona State still does have some firepower down low. 6-foot-10 junior Eric Jacobsen ranks second in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage (65.4% in conference) and has a Pac-12-best 66.7% overall shooting percentage.

Jacobsen is also averaging 6.7 rebounds per game, just shy of David Kravish’s 7.1 boards per contest.

“I think it’s a combination of him posting up deep, getting in there, and also those guys doing a great job of finding him off of ball screens when he dives to the rim,” Martin said. “It’s not just a case of him getting put-backs. He’s working to score those baskets.”

Cal is second in the Pac-12 in three-point defense (30.2%), and fifth in the league in field goal percentage defense (39.9%)

“He wants us to have a little more pride, especially on defense,” said fifth-year Cornell transfer Dwight Tarwater. “I think we’re at our best when we get stops and string stops together. I think, coming out with more of a sense of pride and toughness is something he’d like to see from us, what he’s looking for.”

That pride, said leading scorer Tyrone Wallace was lost over the last four games.

“I think we’ve been playing defense; there have been points where we’ve played defense really well, and stringing together stops, but there have been times where we haven’t been able to get stops, and we haven’t been rebounding well,” Wallace said. “We’re trying to put it all together and be able to be solid on defense throughout the whole 40 minutes.”

The Bears’ biggest issue of late has been turnovers. Cal is eighth in the conference in turnover margin (-0.89), but in conference games only, the Bears have averaged -1.4 per game in turnover margin. Cal is also tied for last in conference play in allowing opponents rebounds, surrendering 38.8 per game. Arizona State, though, is averaging just 27.0 rebounds per game in Pac-12 play.

During the eight-day layoff between games, Martin has stressed the basics during practice, trying to get the Bears back to some of the habits they’ve gotten away from during the slide.

“Just the basics, I’ve always done it that way, whether you’re winning games or losing games,” Martin said. “Whenever you have this type of stretch, I always try to spend a lot of time on going back to the basics. Even in winning, you lose sight of some of the little things.”

One of the benefits of such a long layoff has been the ability to really get Jabari Bird out and running, after he spent just a game and a half on the floor since returning from injury.

“Getting Jabari acclimated back into the lineup, [we] do some of the things he normally does,” Martin said. “You run certain plays for him, so those are the plays you don’t have in the package with him going out, so now you have another guy who’s a perimeter threat, and for him, it’s just his conditioning – getting him to where he’s going up and down the floor. That part has been good, having him back out there.

“I think our guys got off to a good start, played well together, but when Jabari went down – not to say that’s the reason why you hit a rough patch – but we had just enough to keep our parts intact and have success, and when a key part like that goes down, then, all of the sudden, other guys are asked to do things they’re not consistently doing, with X amount of minutes. That becomes tough. Certain guys grow into roles, and all of the sudden, you have guys thrust into certain roles that they weren’t ready for at the time, but had to learn some lessons the hard way, but I think they’ve grown from it.”

Cal had days off on Friday and Saturday, but, said Tarwater -- one of the players who’s had to adjust to a new, larger role in Bird’s absence – practices have been “really intense.”

“Practice has been pretty tough,” Tarwater said. “We’re just trying to get ready for these two league games.”

Wallace -- who went 6-for-22 last time out against Stanford – said that Martin has been stressing “hard work, defense, pretty much the same things. We’ve been doing a lot of defensive drills in practice, and, like Dwight said, the intensity has been raised. It kind of reminds me of practice when we first started or the summer workouts when we first started.”

And, of course, there’s been a singular, constant theme.

“The daily quote, toughness is always there, every day,” Wallace said. “Toughness is the fine print, every day.”

“For me, it’s going through it. If you don’t already have it – obviously, everybody has some toughness at some point; it’s just a matter of reaching for it when you need it the most,” Martin said. “We have adversity, you start searching for that, but again, if you haven’t been in tough situations, going through certain things and being accountable to go through certain things, it’s tough. I think our guys are going through it right now, understanding what it takes to compete, to play as a team, to battle, to be tough.” Top Stories