On March 12, the California men’s basketball team’s roller coaster ride of a season ended with a ruthless 71-53 loss to then-No. 5 Arizona. What seemed like a promising start to the Cuonzo Martin era -- a 10-1 record to begin the season, the Bears’ best start in 55 years -- had ended in typical Cal fashion, with a record of 18-15 and no postseason play.
“I thought the guys fought, I thought they grew, and I thought they learned,” says Martin. “Even though the last game of the season, we didn’t come out on top, I saw a competitive nature, something we were trying to teach from day one.”
Initially, the Bears looked much improved, starting the season with resounding victories over Alcorn State, Kennesaw State, and then-No. 24 Syracuse in the 2K Classic before losing to No. 10 Texas in the final. The team looked cohesive and strong, led by junior point guard Tyrone Wallace who averaged 19.5 points per game and 8.9 rebounds in the first 11 games, as he began to appear on short lists for national player of the year. Senior David Kravish averaged 10.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, and was well on his way to becoming the Bear’s all-time blocks leader. Cal began receiving votes for both national polls as they defeated NCAA Tournament teams Montana (coached by former Cal assistant coach Travis DeCuire), Eastern Washington and Wyoming.
“I thought [the team] did a great job in growing,” says Martin. “Sometimes when you take over a program, there’s adjustments through the course of the season, there’s ups and downs, highs and lows. I thought our guys did a great job continuing to mature, continuing to grow. It was exciting to see guys take steps. Just to see the growth of young men is exciting moving forward.”
Then, the Bears ran into No. 5 Wisconsin at Haas Pavilion. A demoralizing 68-56 loss -- where star Frank Kaminsky added 14 points -- started a series of 8 losses in the next 9 games, spanning the beginning of Pac-12 play. Despite the numerous conference losses however, the loss that may have hurt the most for the Bears was a 55-52 home loss to CSU Bakersfield, which seriously dented any chances of an NCAA Tournament berth.
Cal started Pac-12 play on a 1-6 skid, sending the Bears nearly to the basement of the conference standings in the early goings -- a big hole from which to climb out. They struggled to replace the athleticism and scoring lost when sophomore Jabari Bird went down with a stress fracture for 10 games – nearly a month and a half.
A win against Washington State, in Pullman, seemed to energize the team, with Wallace dropping 26 points and limiting his turnovers, which were a significant problem throughout the season as he tried to force the issue in a stagnant offense. The Bears went on to win their next five, giving fans hope going into a big match-up in Salt Lake City with No. 11 Utah.
Cal lost in a 76-61 battle, which truly showed the talent gulf between the two teams and demonstrated the two biggest problems the Bears had all season: Inability to convert free throw attempts, and a paucity of depth in the front court. Cal shot 5-of-12 from the free throw line -- even worse than their season average of 64.9% -- against the Utes.
“The biggest key [for the offseason], because the game is played on both ends of the floor, is doing a better job with our turnovers,” said Martin. “You want to keep those turnovers at 10 or less on a consistent basis and that’s regardless of whoever you’re playing against. We have to improve our team free throw shooting, we have to improve our ability to score in the post and defend in the post.”
The lack of frontcourt depth -- partially due to a new coaching staff not having much time to recruit (Utah’s Jakob Poeltl would likely have signed with the Bears had Mike Montgomery not retired) -- left only Kravish, Kingsley Okoroh, and 6-foot-6 Dwight Tarwater (who Martin posited may only really be 6-foot-4, during a midseason press conference) available down low after the offseason injury to seven-footer Kameron Rooks (who, Martin said, could have played were the Bears now in the NCAA Tournament), the Bears struggled in the paint, especially against larger teams like the Wildcats and the Badgers. When Kravish got into early foul trouble, which happened more often throughout the latter part of the season, Cal was vulnerable, often giving up more points in the paint than they could score themselves.
“I wish I could have had a power, bruiser guy to go along with David Kravish,” says Martin. “He did a tremendous job playing out of position, and he did an admirable job of not making excuses, not complaining, and being professional everyday. He handled himself well over the course of a tough season for him.”
In a season full of streaks, these issues, along with some poor offensive spacing, led to a 2-6 finish to the season, with two losses coming against Pac-12 champion Arizona. Cal was eliminated from the Pac-12 Tournament after just two rounds, leaving them on the outside looking in for even the NIT. Martin then made the decision to decline an invitation to the CBI, which would have cost the program money, but allowed them to host the seniors at home for a few more games. This team, Martin said, is built for bigger things, not for participation trophies.
“No disrespect to any tournament because you always want to complete, play games and get better. I just think for our guys we’re built to win an NCAA championship one day, and I think that’s first and foremost,” said Martin. “I think for our guys the season can take a toll on you. Not only players, but our staff, work, grind, and recruit and that’s part of the job. Also, on the academic side, you miss a lot of class and our guys have done such a good job thus far that we have to finish strong … I just thought as the head coach that we would pass up on this opportunity.”
Instead, the Bears’ season is over.
It’s time now for Martin and his staff to start turning towards the future, and it very well could be a future without Wallace.
Should Wallace not leave for the NBA Draft -- something Martin will discuss with him after he lets the players take a week break, plus spring break, before sitting down with them individually – he’ll return much improved, as will Bird. Those two will be aided by a rapidly developing recruiting class, starting with the addition of talented wing Davon Dillard. Adding those pieces to the possibility of an Ivan Rabb and Caleb Swanigan front court, and/or a commitment from Tyson Jolly -- who recently hosted Martin on an in-home visit -- gives Bears fans cause to be optimistic moving forward, as does the addition of Georgetown transfer Stephen Domingo, who will be eligible to play next season.
“I think he can be a good player, I really do,” said Martin speaking about one of the biggest additions to next year’s team. “He shoots a lot of balls in practice, so I like that part. He’s a confident shooter, and he’s done a great job with his body. I like watching him in practice. I enjoy watching him compete and get after them in practice; it’s fun to see.
“We’ll be where we need to be,” said Martin. “Unless you’re already built that way and you consistently play that way, then it takes time. That means you introducing something that I’m not familiar with, and I got to go through that. I just think that’s the key, going through that.”
Coach Martin also went into further detail as to his plans for the upcoming recruiting class – even mentioning the possibility that those with eligibility would not return to the team next year, though he didn’t address any player specifically. One possible departure, one would have to think would be Christian Behrens, who mentioned that possibility before senior night.
“You got to do what’s best for the student athlete,” said Martin on how many new faces he wants to bring into the program. “That’s first and foremost. We always recruit 10-12 guys as we speak but it could be one, two, three, four. David Kravish is a senior and we had 12 scholarship guys this year, so that’s two. Dwight Tarwater is a senior so that’s three.”
Wallace leaving would be four, and Behrens would be five, giving Cal a lot of options to remake the program in short order.
“I sit down with each individual player every year to assess where they are and where they need to go, if it’s the right fit,” said Martin on his assessment of individual players after the season. That’s always been the case everywhere I’ve been and I think you have to be honest in those areas, and allow the young man the opportunity to make a decision to do what’s best for him. I think that’s what’s most important for me as a coach and for the guys in the situation to be successful. “