BERKELEY -- As California head coach Cuonzo Martin talks about the "exhausting" process of defense, and how far his team has come since the Bears got back from Australia, what th epersonality of this team is -- "They enjoy competing," he says, "and they're able to compete at a high level, and not take it personal, so it's fun to watch these guys work," -- there was one constant: What will distinguish this team, in his mind, isn't so much about what's on the court, as off of it.
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1544605-california-rising Martin and the players who came out to address the media before Cal's first open session of the season expounded on how "Real Talk" -- a weekly session where all the players get together with Director of Basketball Operations Marco Harris and discuss everything from basketball to morality to life -- has helped his team bond closer together over the past year and a half that Martin's been at the head of the program.
"I'm not one of those guys that has slogans all over the locker room and sayings," Martin says. "After a while, those things fade. For us, as a day-to-day coach, and a lifestyle, how we go about our day-to-day business, we stand the test of time, and you see the brand of a program, as opposed to me putting signs and billboards all over the locker room."
Martin of course also talked about the performances of freshmen Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, as well as the defensive stylings of Stephen Domingo, who he calls one of Cal's best defenders, but the focus was on the maturity of this group, from top to bottom.
"They're more mature than my class, coming in," point guard Sam Singer laughed, when asked about Brown, Rabb and Roman Davis. "You can see we're a bunch of goofballs. They're definitely mature, coming in."
The biggest strength of the Bears, Martin says, is that they have "talented basketball players," starting with the aforementioned Brown and Rabb, who helped lift Cal to the second-best recruiting class in the nation, but, Martin says, it goes beyond just having talent.
"You could say that 35 teams have that caliber of talent," he says. "I think the biggest key is being on the same page, going through adversity, dealing with tough times, and that part, I don't know. But, we have the parts to be successful. I've seen many teams, on the surface, they have the potential to be very successful, but in the end, it doesn't pan out. For us, we have what it takes to be successful, but a lot of what goes into being successful -- how hard you play, how hard you compete when you hit adversity [...] if I'm not getting shots, how do I manage to play within a game? If I go from 20 minutes to 15 minutes to 5 minutes, do I still maintain my level of focus throughout the game? I think those things are very important."
The roots of that kind of mental toughness have grown in the fertile soil that is the Real Talk sessions the Bears have had.
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"This is to be able to come together as a group and not worry about basketball," says Singer. "We talk about life issues, issues that we're going to face in college, things that we come across in college, things that we're going to come across when we graduate, in the real world, and it's good to have each other's opinions on certain issues. There can be arguments about certain things. We're not going to see eye-to-eye, but for us to be able to communicate through those disagreements, and come to a solid conclusion, is something that'll help on the court, as well."
One topic that the players mentioned was simply being a man.
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"We talk about what it means to be a man," Domingo says. "Everyone has a different definition of what it means to be a man. We're all growing up, we think we're young men, we're trying to become good men when we get out of here, and everybody has a different opinion on that -- none that are outrageous or anything -- but we all build off that and see what other guys think it takes to be a man, and that helps us build as men, being able to have dialogue with other guys."
Seldom times, Martin sits in, but never as a coach, only, as he says, "as one of the guys," to help the players feel more at ease.
"Marco, who directs it, he's the Director of Operations, and there's a trust level [with him]," Martin says. "If I'm in there, I'm just one of the guys, not necessarily as Coach. If I comment, I'm commenting as a guy that's in the room -- not necessarily 'Coach said this.' You have to give those guys the right to say what they need to say, because that's what it's about."
There's going to be a large spotlight on Cal this coming season, but those talks, every week, in the locker room, are going to be what allows the Bears to shine in March, and beyond.
"Win or lose, there's a next day," Martin says. "The goal is to try to get better every day. My goal is to coach, to develop young men, first and foremost. The next goal is for our program to get better every day, and that's a hard thing to do, to try to maximize your talent on and off the court every day, and then try to reach academic success.
"You win a big game, but there's still class on Tuesday morning. You lose a tough one, there's still class Wednesday morning, and you have to go to class and try your best. I try to make them understand: This is a sport. Even it's a high level, even though it's BCS basketball, and the Pac-12 is a great league, at the end of the day, you max out your talent the best you can, let the chips fall where they may. I was this way in college, some guys, you lose a game, and your whole day is shot. It took years to be able to bounce back from that, and learn that it's just a ballgame."