BERKELEY -- The California men’s basketball program hasn’t enjoyed this much April attention – and relevancy -- since capturing its first conference title in 2010.
One could argue that it’s been even longer than that, but Bears fans won’t have to wait so long again. With the announced return of point guard Tyrone Wallace, the signing of five-star Ivan Rabb and top shooting guard Tyson Jolly, the start of a $10 million renovation of Haas Pavilion and now, the hiring of Wyking Jones as the replacement for the departed Jon Harris, Cuonzo Martin has made quite a splash just one year after taking the head coaching reins from the retiring Mike Montgomery.
The hiring of Jones – announced just hours before Wallace’s “I’ll be returning” press conference -- may have flown under the radar, but it’s arguably just as crucial for the 2015-16 season, and beyond.
“It was great for our program to get him,” said Martin, who addressed the hiring of Jones after the press conference with the gathered media, and said that Jones was ‘the guy’ from wire to wire during the search.
“The one thing we did, during this process, you lose a guy like Jon, and not only did Jon do a great job as an assistant coach, but Jon was like family, because we’d been together for a long time,” Martin said. “You want to get a guy that understands the value of family and team. Winning is just as important, and probably the most important thing is working with big guys in their development, because that is very important for our guys. I wanted to hire a guy that could take our big guys to a higher level -- because Jon took a lot of pride in that – and a guy that’s been a big guy before.”
The 6-foot-8 Jones lettered for four years at Loyola Marymount, totaling 1,076 points and 493 rebounds in his career to rank among the school’s top 25 all-time scorers, and earned all-West Coast Conference honors in 1993-94, averaging 19.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. That season was highlighted by a 39-point, 16-rebound, five-block game against San Francisco, and 12 games where he scored 20 or more points.
“You’ve got guys that have played on the perimeter that are very good at teaching it, but I wanted a guy who knew what it felt like to work with and be around big guys, but also get inside the practice – not just coach it, but to get in there – and he brings all those things to the table,” Martin said.
Coaching big men will be paramount next season, with the addition of Rabb, as well as the return of injured seven-footer Kameron Rooks and sophomore Kingsley Okoroh, who averaged 13.1 minutes per game as a true freshman, due to the paucity of experienced post players on the roster.
“He knows [Rabb], too, and that really helped,” said Martin. “A guy that’s familiar with Ivan Rabb, and recruited him some, he’s very familiar with him, so to have a guy like that on board can really help what we’re trying to do, and not just Ivan; with Kingsley and Kameron Rooks – those guys – to really help those guys take that next step.”
Jones became familiar with Rabb through his time with the Nike EYBL circuit, where he spent two years as a basketball travel team manager, managing 45 travel teams and the tournaments that Nike sponsored in its grassroots youth program. The recruiting connections he made during that time, along with his roots in Inglewood, Calif., were important plusses in Jones’s favor during the hiring process.
“Very important. It was very important,” Martin said. “You have to do your homework in making these decisions. There are a lot of great candidates that wanted to be a part of this, whether it’s high school coaches, college coaches, NBA guys, we just had to find the right guy, and Wyking felt like the right guy to me. Being from the Southern California area, it really helps.”
Martin had known Jones in passing before the position opened, but knew him well enough to know that he would certainly be able to fill Harris’s shoes, particularly coming from a Louisville program that won a national title as recently as 2013.
“Not really hanging out with him, but I knew who he was,” Martin said. “You’re an assistant coach, you see a lot of guys on the road. You know who’s who. I’ve built relationships.
“Meeting early on, thinking it would happen for Jon, that it should happen, you put your feelers out there to see who’s who, and you also study the game and you know who is who out there. You watch programs, and you watch how Louisville big guys have gotten better. You take notice of that, because I watch teams, watch how they play, and I like when big guys play. Even though I played on the perimeter, I like to see big guys grow and develop. We also know all of the same people.”
The simultaneous recruitment of Rabb and the pursuit of Jones provided an interesting study in what attracts talent to Cal, and Martin saw several parallels in the two tasks.
“You have to work, first and foremost, and you have to be able to sell it, just like in recruiting,” said Martin. “You have to sell it from the standpoint of, this is a great place, which it is. You can’t beat the Bay Area. There are only a few places in the world in comparison to the Bay Area, and for a coach that’s from California, he knows that part. It’s a lot of hard work, putting in hours. When you’re not recruiting Ivan Rabb, you’re recruiting on this end. You try to land the best, and put yourself in position to be the best.”
Jones has been to the mountaintop before, going to two Final Fours with the Cardinals and winning the aforementioned national title. Swiping a top assistant from a program like Louisville – from a head coach like Rick Pitino -- was quite a coup for Martin, and a team that last season failed to reach the postseason.
“Success is always good, but that wasn’t our main criteria,” Martin said. “My biggest thing was a guy that could help develop big guys. From a recruiting standpoint, that might be second or third, but also a guy that understands the value of family. Really, it’s the development of your big guys was the most important thing for me.”