Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin talks Jaylen Brown's development and what keeps him up at night

BERKELEY -- As Cuonzo Martin and Cal get ready for their final non-conference games before the start of Pac-12 play, the Bears skipper assesses where the Bears are at this point in the season, and reveals what keeps him up at night about this team.

BERKELEY -- What keeps California head men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin up at night? Wins like the one against Incarnate Word.

"I've been a part of situations where, we've lost games, and I've been able to sleep a little bit better because of how we played," Martin said. "We had two or three games here that we've won, and it's hard to sleep. You'd rather win it, but sometimes, you have to learn some hard lessons, and we didn't play well. It wasn't enough if, a team we feel like we should have dominated, even when I played the game, I wasn't happy when it was a game where it was competitive. You had one more point and won the game? That's not good enough. Don't just play defense; dominate on defense."

Cal (8-2) faces off against Coppin State (2-8), which has lost 109-68 to Iowa and barely beat Division II Goldey-Beacom College, 80-73.

Wing Jabari Bird said that the Bears "slept on" Incarnate Word, and Martin says that can't happen again.

"In some games, they didn't have the energy, the enthusiasm, going into the game, in the shootaround," Martin says. "I've never been one to say that they're not prepared because of the opponents, or that they're overlooking the opponents. That's never been me. When you're a ballplayer, you play ball. If the opponent's a lesser opponent, then I'm trying to dominate. I've never been around a guy that says, 'This game is not that big, so I'll just kind of go through the motions.' I don't want that guy as a part of my team."

The Bears are 150th in Division I in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.10), and that's not going to cut it for Martin, especially since Cal is averaging 11.5 turnovers per game, tied for 55th in Division I, with games of 14, 15 and 19 turnovers on its resume. it's something that "without a doubt," worries the second-year head coach.

"I think you've just got to get better," Martin said. "I think our guys are focused, and I think that's moreso for me, than the guys, because I think they're willing passers. We've got to get better movement in the offense. We'll go back to our movement, get a lot of movement, to where it's not a lot of dominant ball handling. I hate to see [turnovers] anything over 10. That just makes my head hurt. We've got to get the assists up to about 15 -- at least 15 -- a game, at least 15 a game, moving the ball, making plays to keep those turnovers at 10 or under. Anything more than that is just careless basketball."

Martin said that the game against Saint Mary's earlier this week was good for the Bears, especially because it was so close.

"There was a four- or five-game stretch where you're playing with a 25-pound weight vest on your back," Martin said. "When you get that off your back and just play basketball, and it's fun, this was a fun game, an exciting game. I thought the atmosphere presented that. I also thought the guys, meeting amongst each other, maybe got some things off their chest, were able to move forward. That helped. It's basketball. You've got to be excited about playing this game."

In the midst of that four-to-five-game stretch, Martin said Cal still had some moments of good basketball, but overwhelmingly, the Bears did not play up to their capability. He noted Stephen Domingo as playing "some good basketball," despite not scoring much. 

Also playing well? Backup point guard Sam Singer, who's pulled down eight rebounds and dished out four assists in the last two games, also adding a block and a steal.

"We've just got to get him to where he's not fouling, because last game, he had four fouls," Martin said. "I still have to watch the film and figure out where those four came from, but he's playing good ball. We've got to have him continue to be more aggressive, and more assertive."

The same can be said for freshman Ivan Rabb. Martin made a point of trying to get his guards to force the ball in to Rabb in the low post early in the season, and while he's pleased with the 13 shots that Rabb took last week against Saint Mary's, he'd like Rabb's role to increase.

"I'd like to see it more, but it's a combination," Martin said. "It's not just guys forcing the ball. It's also him being assertive in the post. It can't be a halfway post. It has to be aggressive. Your body language will tell them you want the ball. We have to be able to give him the ball without it being a set play. I think it's more 60 [percent] with him posting, as opposed to 40 percent the guards getting it to him posting. It's having the position to demand the ball, because when he's open wide, his body presents itself, so it's an obvious pass, but he has to be able to post aggressively, and want the ball."

Bird, for one, has certainly been aggressive, and has helped to allevaite some of the stress of point guard Tyrone Wallace and freshman Jaylen Brown going cold the last three games.

For the last three games, Bird has hit one crucial three-pointer to tie Incarnate Word at the half, and another to ice the game with 17 seconds left against the Gaels.

"We just finished watching film, about two hours ago, Jabari and I," Martin said early Thursday afternoon. "You see some good things. There's still a ways to go, as far as what I think he should be, and could be. That's on both sides of the ball. He's one of those guys that will do everything you've asked him, but I think he still needs to be aggressive in the offense. He had 15 points the last game, but I showed him, he made a three-point shot when Tyrone dribble penetrated to the wing, he made a three-point shot and it was 3:39 left in the game, and the next shot he took, there were 17 seconds left in the game, and he made that one. That's a long span of not being assertive, not being aggressive, and not getting ot the free throw line. Just have to make sure he's very assertive, very aggressive, but also under control at the same time."

Over the last three games, while Brown and Wallace have gone a combined 27-of-71 (38.0%) from the field, Bird has gone 13-of-24 (54.2%) from the field and 8-of-16 from three. In the previous seven games, Bird had gone 27-of-59 (45.8%) in the previous seven games, and 8-of-30 (26.7%) from beyond the arc.

"You're talking about a guy who's a junior, who's a talented basketball player, so we're not talking about his talent; we're talking about his consistency," Martin said. "I don't think he lacks confidence; it's just being aggressive, strong with the basketball, making decisions, being sound, sprinting off screens, being strong as he goes and getting a tip-dunk. I think, with him, it's just the consistency of getting every possession down, not to stand and watch but to be assertive."

Cal is 8-2, but in Martin's mind, should be 10-0. Issues against the zone, Brown getting in foul trouble regularly -- he's had four or more fouls in five of the last six games -- and, yes, playing down to the opposition (barely beating East Carolina, 70-62, beating a young Wyoming team 78-72 in overtime and the aforementioned 74-62 win over Incarnate Word) have plagued the Bears, who at times look disjointed and disorganized.

"You have to learn how to play with each other," Martin said. "You have to understand that this guy likes the ball right here, and that's going through it. It's hard to go through that in practice. It's hard to go through that in games when you're winning by 25 or 30 points. You only get those situations when you're in the trenches and you're battling and getting wins. Then, you start to see, 'OK, who's mentally locked in down the stretch? Who's the guy who can make the big shot, make the big free throw, can make the big play and get a big stop, defensively?'"

Going through it, creating chemistry -- winning by 30 -- Cal did that early, with a 97-65 win over Rice and an 85-67 victory over UC Santa Barbara, but since first facing a zone defense, against the Pirates, the Bears have looked out-of-sorts for long stretches, and dropped two straight to San Diego State (72-58) and Richmond (94-90) in Las Vegas.

"You have to play, because even a team that's playing a zone, and you go in transition, you see a zone, you see where guys set. As a big guy, you sprint right to the rim and post up. Somebody has to defend you. If you're a shooter, you sprint to the wing and somebody has to guard the wing. It's basketball. Have your spacing, play the game, move the ball, do what we do in practice and be aggressive."

Cal can expect another zone this Saturday against Coppin State, though not on Christmas against Virginia. Still, zone defense is going to be something the Bears are faced with until they prove that they can effectively defeat it.

"We probably do it 20 percent in practice," Martin says. "You do what you do in practice. I don't think any team does 75 percent what some other team does, in practice. You do what you do. I think that's what helps you become successful. We're not going to spend half an hour on zone offense, when that's not what we do, because it won't be at the level it will be in the game."

Coppin State's zone, Martin says, can be beaten by making shots.

"It's not very complicated for me," Martin says. "Put it in the rim."

When Cal gets chances for easy points -- free throws -- the Bears are wasting them. Cal is 273rd in the nation in free-throw percentage (65.1%), with Wallace -- who started the year 18-of-24 (75%) -- shooting 60.7% from the line on the year, and Brown shooting 62.1%. Martin notes that Brown -- who's averaging 14.3 points per game -- would be closer to 18 if he hit his free throws.

All this -- the free throw woes, the assist-to-turnover ratios, the too-close wins -- they all keep Martin up at night, and with Pac-12 play right around the corner, the Bears are running out of time to get things ironed out. Top Stories