BERKELEY -- Just following the commitment of Ivan Rabb, before point guard Tyrone Wallace announced he was staying for his senior season, before Jaylen Brown -- then Scout’s No. 1 overall prospect for 2015 – announced that he was joining Rabb in Berkeley, Wyking Jones was already on the road, recruiting for California.
“Right place at the right time, right?” Jones smiled, as he was introduced to the media on Wednesday.
By mid-April, the former Louisville assistant had already been hired as the replacement for Jon Harris, who left to helm his own program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, but had yet to be announced, officially. He was, however, on the road, recruiting, during the open evaluation period. What he heard in gyms across the country wasn’t a reaction to the news of Wallace or Brown. It was all about Cuonzo Martin.
“Out in the coaching ranks, Cuonzo Martin is very well respected,” Jones said. “When I accepted the job, and I was in the gym, during tournaments, in April, you would have thought I’d won a national championship, with the way that everyone came up and congratulated me for the move here.”
Jones, of course, knows what it’s like to win the big one – Martin’s self-stated goal when he got the job – winning alongside Rick Pitino in 2013.
By almost every measure, Louisville is one of college basketball’s elite programs. The Cardinals have won three national titles, have made it to the NCAA Final Four 14 times and have been to the NCAA Tournament every year since 2007.
“As a college basketball coach, you go where you feel is the right opportunity,” Jones said. “When that happens, your family – your wife, your kids – they follow you along that journey. For me, I’m a California guy. I was born and raised in Los Angeles – Inglewood, Calif, -- and my wife was born and raised in Berkeley. All of her family is here. For me, for the past nine years, I’ve been away from home. My wife has been away from home, and my kids have, as well. I just saw an opportunity – a unique opportunity – to be able to, all the sacrifice that my wife and my kids have made for me in my career, I saw a unique opportunity to be able to come back home for them, for me, for all of us.”
But, the reaction he got from fellow coaches had nothing to do with what he did in red, or for his homecoming. It had everything to do with the man now at the head of the blue and gold.
“It had everything to do with the fact that coach Martin is so well respected,” Jones said. “They knew that I was putting myself in a great situation.”
It didn’t take long for that situation to improve.
Jones was already identified as the newest addition to the program well before Rabb committed, and even before that, he knew that Rabb was headed to Berkeley.
“The interesting thing about Ivan, I always knew that Ivan was going to end up here,” Jones said. “I recruited Ivan when I was at Louisville, but at the end of the day, I know Ivan, from talking to him, our conversations, he’s a kid who’s very proud to be from the Bay Area. He’s a very proud Oakland kid. I knew that, when I saw Cuonzo Martin hired at Cal, I said, ‘That’s where Ivan Rabb’s going to go to school, because he’s going to want to play for Cuonzo Martin and his staff.’ I kind of predicted that that was going to be the case. Now that it is the case, I’m very excited to work with Ivan, and someone that talented. More than that, just to work with a kid that is that talented, but at the same time, is an absolute great kid.”
Sources have said that Rabb – three months before making his announcement – was already recruiting for the Bears. He started doing it with the likes of Caleb Swanigan and Brown at the USA Basketball camp, building on the relationship that Martin had forged since back when Brown was a freshman, and Martin was embarking on his first season as the head coach at Tennessee.
“Down the stretch, I think what helped, was his relationship with Ivan Rabb,” Martin said of Brown. “Those guys built a great relationship, playing basketball together. That’s the thing that a lot of guys do right now – they build those relationships amongst each other at these tournaments and summer events – USA Basketball – and it goes from there. It really helped us. I think where we really started to gain ground, is when he and Ivan played together in Massachusetts. I think it might have been in late January or February. It just kind of went from there.”
And, on April 13, Rabb publicly pulled the trigger. Just under three weeks later, Brown joined up.
“I’ve seen Jaylen play many, many times,” Jones said. “Jaylen is very talented. Very talented. He’s a very exciting basketball player. With Jaylen, his competitiveness, he doesn’t take plays off, on either end. He’s so competitive, he’s so driven. He plays at such a high level that you can’t help but be excited about what he brings to the table, with this program.”
Cal, since finishing the season 18-15, and missing out on the postseason, has now shot up into many early NCAA Tournament projected fields, and could very well challenge a rebuilding Arizona for the Pac-12 title.
The Bears’ recruiting class – including Brown, Rabb and Tyson Jolly, along with the yet-to-be-signed Davon Dillard -- ranks second in the nation behind Duke.
The times, they are a-changing. Martin, for his part, doesn’t understand why things were any different before he got to Berkeley.
“These guys had the opportunity to go anywhere in America, but they chose to come here,” Martin said. “Why not? You’re talking about the No. 1 public institution in the world, so why not? You’ve got great academics and great athletics, so why not? That’s what people should say.”
One of the reasons that Martin eschewed an opportunity to take this year’s bunch to the College Basketball Invitational was because, as he said, he’s not here to win the CBI, or the NIT. He’s here to win a national title.
“I feel like we have the parts,” he said on Wednesday. “Now, we have to put them in place in order for us to be successful, play well together, put guys in position to do things that they do well, to defend, to rebound and play hard, score the basketball, and have fun in doing that.”
Martin’s first call when he got the job – after calling the parents of all the current players – was to Rabb’s mother, Tami. He wasn’t going to spend time on going after players he could easily get. He wanted the big fish. As much as he says he’s looking for the right fit – regardless of rating or ranking – he set out to make a statement. Now, he’s the one fielding calls.
“We’ve had a lot of what we would call heavyweights, they’ve called us,” said Martin. “But, again, we’ve put the work in. You have to still put the work in, to be in position. It does help, but we’ve just got to do our part and take it one day at a time, and make sure these young men are successful.”
There is a new buzz around the program, a sense of excitement, and, for longtime Cal fans – students and boosters alike -- a sense of wonder.
“That’s been great. Tremendous energy from all of the above,” Martin said. “Our students, our donors, our supporters, our alumni base, I actually received an email from someone in Brazil. That’s one place I’ve always wanted to visit. They’re just so excited about it. There’s a tremendous amount of energy and passion, and I just think it’s great, not only for Cal, the university, but also the Bay Area. Golden State’s doing a tremendous job, and we want to be a part of it – represent, and do our part. I think it’s fun to be a part of, but there’s still plenty of work to do.”
There is even now talk of a Midnight Madness event, before the formal start of the season.
“If you guys poll the fans, and they say we need to do it, then we’ll do it,” Martin said.
Before that, Cal – including Brown, Rabb, Jolly, Stephen Domingo and Kameron Rooks (who missed all last season with a knee injury) – will head to Australia for a 10-day trip, playing against four professional teams.
The Bears leave on Aug. 14, and will hit Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.
“It gives us 10 days that the NCAA allows you to practice, so that part is great,” Martin said. “Just to play against really good competition, to also see a different part of the world, I think that will be fun for our guys, because you get a history lesson, as well as get basketball. More importantly, you get camaraderie, as a team. We’ll have a chance to practice here. They allow you 10 days to practice before you take the trip.”
From the local level to the national level and, come August, the international level, California is on the rise. As Martin says, “Why not?”