California may be one of the hotter teams in the conference, for now, as winners of four straight (ending a streak of six straight losses), but they’re about to run into a tough one-two punch in Colorado and Utah – a combined 29-15 -- on Thursday and Saturday, and they’ll be doing it at altitude. How do the Bears plan to adjust to the rarified air in the mountains of the Pac-12?
“We don’t have a lot to adjust with,” said first-year head coach Cuonzo Martin. “You’ve got to make it work with what you have. You keep rolling.
“We play the game. For me, and I’ve told the guys: They’ve lost a game in that building, so it can be done. That’s the bottom line. I don’t get consumed with what it’s like at altitude. You’ve got to go compete and win a ballgame. That will never be an excuse for me.”
Colorado has been consistently inconsistent this season, and come into Thursday’s 7 p.m. Mountain tip at 11-11 and 4-6 in the Pac-12, but while last season’s Pac-12 Tournament semifinalist has not won more than three games in a row this season (and lost as many as four straight), they will have the services of senior Askia Booker, who ranks 11th in Buffaloes history in three-pointers made, 15th in steals, 18th in assists and 20th in starts.
Booker scored 43 points against USC on Jan. 29, but missed the Feb. 7 tilt against the Utes – a 79-51 loss in Boulder – with a hip pointer.
Colorado will also be armed with Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott. Scott has missed eight games with injury, and Johnson has missed five, including four of the last seven.
“[Colorado head coach] Tad [Boyle] does a tremendous job coaching, but also putting together physical guys with length,” Martin said. “They’ve got four or five guys with length – between 6-6 and 6-7, 6-8 – they can play the two, the three and the four. I think in Booker’s case, you’ve got one of the best college scorers – not just in the Pac-12, but in the country – a guy that can score the ball in a variety of ways, get to the rim, score in transition, finishes around the rim, comes off the ball screen, the pin-down shots. He can score in any way you want the ball to be scored, and he can do it at a high level.”
Johnson is averaging 11.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, while Scott is averaging 13.8 points and 7.2 boards.
“They’ve been up and down this year, because they haven’t had a lot of games where they’ve played at full strength, and now, I think, Thursday will be one of the first games where they have everybody back: Askia Booker, Xavier Johnson, Josh Scott,” said Cal guard Sam Singer. “All those guys are back, so what we’ve seen of them is that they really like to play in transition, really get out and score a lot in transition. They score a lot on offensive rebounds. At home, they’re much better, defensively, so we’ve got to limit our turnovers and take good shots, so the game doesn’t get into a track meet, especially at that altitude.”
Conditioning and energy have been a point of focus for Martin and the Bears, not just because of this weekend’s upcoming pair of games at altitude, but because of the inconsistent effort on both ends of the floor.
“I saw it in practice, but it’s hard to see that when you’re losing games. You see it in spurts in a game, and now, you’re able to see, ‘This is what it looks like,’” Martin said. “I think they compete. I think we’re probably 80 percent of where we need to be, as far as competing and playing hard all the time. I think that comes with continuing to strengthen your bench, so now your starters can sit more. I think that’s what helps – when you get guys playing as hard as they can play. It’s hard to play 40 minutes, if you’re competing as hard as you can play. The bench has to get stronger, and I think that’s where the growth is. Guys are maximizing themselves in practice. Obviously, practice is a lot shorter this time of year, but exerting as much energy as possible, but also maintaining your mental capacity in practice – because you’ve got to push to exhaustion, but still have an understanding of what’s going on.”
What the Bears have is a now-deeper bench, bolstered by the return of Jabari Bird, who has played at least 20 minutes over his last seven games, after returning from injury for a brief, eight-minute stint against UCLA in Los Angeles.
Over the past four games, Cal’s bench has averaged 15.25 points per game. Over the six-game losing streak, the Bears’ bench averaged 11.33 points per game.
“I think the thing is, you go back to the preseason games, you had guys come off the bench and their production – with Jabari in the fold – when guys came off the bench, they had a role, whether they were scoring the ball or not,” Martin said. “They played a specific role. Everybody doesn’t have to be a scorer, but you have to play a role, and I think that’s what’s helped. Now, in the case of Sam Singer coming off the bench, scoring the ball and being aggressive, I think Sam’s best game – whatever he puts in, in the scoring column – is he’s defending, he’s rebounding, he’s playing hard, he’s assisting. I think that’s Sam’s best game, whether it’s zero points or 20 points. I think he’s at his best when he’s doing all those other things.”
Bird has averaged 10.25 points and 5.75 rebounds per game over Cal’s four-game winning streak, peaking in his second try against UCLA on Saturday, with 16 points and six rebounds.
“Not to say he’s the reason why, but when you have a Jabari Bird who goes down – a guy that can make shots, opens up your offense – now, you’re putting guys in the fold playing a lot of minutes that weren’t accustomed to those minutes,” Martin said. “They probably weren’t ready for those minutes, and playing a different role in those minutes, because of what we had to do. They weren’t being defended the same way you defend a Jabari Bird. Now, all of the sudden, you get stagnant, because Tyrone [Wallace] has to do more.”
With Bird gone, Wallace averaged 20.2 points on 16.3 shots per game. With Bird healthy, Wallace has averaged 15.4 points per game on 14 shots per game. He’s had to do less, and as a consequence, the team has functioned better.
“[The ball] was sticking because [Wallace] was our best opportunity to score, because they were defending everybody else,” Martin said. “I think, now that we have Jabari back in the fold, now your spacing is better, your shots are better, the opportunities are better, because now you have to defend multiple guys on the floor, as opposed to sometimes three, sometimes two. I think that’s the biggest difference.”
Wallace ranks among the top 10 in the Pac-12 in scoring (4th; 17.4 ppg), rebounding (5th; 7.9 rpg), defensive rebounding (1nd, 6.9 drpg) and assists (6th; 3.8 apg), and over the past three games, has averaged 4.3 assists, 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds.
“I think Tyrone has done a tremendous job, because this is a guy who can score 20 a night, but it speaks volumes about his game,” Martin said of Wallace’s unselfish nature and increasing ability to distribute. “You look at the Washington game, he gives the ball up [to Singer for the game-winner]. He had an opportunity. Early in the year, especially when Jabari went down, we needed him to force it and put pressure on defense, and he might force up a shot, to give us the best chance to win. Well, Tyrone jump stops, he hits Sam and Sam makes the play. UCLA game, Tyrone did a great job, probing the defense on the ball screen, guys commit, he got a guy [Dwight Tarwater] open in the corner, and he does a great job of making that play, and that speaks volumes of his growth as a basketball player. I think that’s the biggest key.”
Wallace’s pass to Singer for the eventual game-winner over the Huskies sparked the sophomore guard to a 75% shooting run over the past four games, including a 5-of-6 mark from three-point range. That scoring threat off the bench has helped to stretch defenses and allow Bird, Wallace and David Kravish room to work.
“Tyrone always had trust in his teammates, but it was a case of what we needed for us to be successful. Now, your spacing is good because of Sam’s growth as a player, so now you’ve got to defend Sam,” Martin said. “The whole game changes. You saw a period of time with the way they defended Sam – guys collapsed, and he couldn’t make a shot. Now, Sam’s making shots, he’s driving the ball and the game opens up for everybody.”
Singer has certainly noticed the change.
“We have a lot more guys taking shots,” Singer said. “We have Dwight, and Jabari’s back, and Jordan [Mathews], they have to respect their ability to hit shots, so it gives guys like Tyrone the ability to get in the lane and find people, and it gives Dave room to operate down there, in the post.
“During our losing streak, we weren’t scoring very much, and we weren’t very efficient. We were turning the ball over too much, so now, the floor is more spread, we’re moving the ball, people are moving, so it’s given us the ability to go inside and penetrate with our guards and stuff like that. I think that’s probably the biggest thing on offense.”
Singer’s development as a scorer – he’s averaged 8.25 points per game over the past four games, with two of his three double-figure scoring games on the season during that stretch – has vastly helped that spacing.
“He got into a stretch where he was second-guessing where he was shooting, and now he’s shooting with confidence, because that’s what he needed,” Martin said. “That’s who he had to become: He had to become a scoring threat because of the way they were defending him, more than anything. So, now, when he drives the ball, he’s able to dump it off because they know he’s a threat to score.”