PREVIEW: Tyrone Wallace and Cal face a moment of truth against Stanford at Maples Pavilion

Cal heads to Maples Pavilion having dropped two straight, and are facing a surging Michael Humphrey and a Cardinal team that can exploit the zone.

Following an all-too-close win over Incarnate Word, the California men's basketball team (12-5, 2-2 in Pac-12) had a players-only meeting. Over their next six games, the Bears went 5-1. 

After two losses last week to Oregon and Oregon State, with rival Stanford on the docket Thursday for an 8 p.m. tilt on FOX Sports 1, no such meeting was held.

"We're fine," said senior point guard Tyrone Wallace. The Bears are, by most statistical measures, one of the best defensive teams in the Pac-12. Cal is tops in the conference in opponent field goal percentage (37.5%), and rank 12th nationally on that account. The Bears are No. 1 in the nation in terms of field goal percentage defense (38.1%). 11 times have the Bears limited opponents to 40% shooting or less from the floor, including five in a row before Oregon hit 40.7% of its field goals last week.

And, really, that’s where things have gotten messy for the Bears.

"To their credit, they come back and practice hard, and for some guys, the last two or three days, have really had their best practices since they've been a part of the program," said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. "It's just the growth of young guys, wanting to get better, continuing to improve, and this time of year, when you don't have class, you're not consumed with that, and you have time to continue to get better, because this is really the last stretch where you can really make that next jump, because once school is in, you work when you work. I think guys have a peace of mind, where you're not so focused on having to go to class or tutors, or are up all night studying. This is the time you make jumps."

Cal had been steadily improving over the season, opening Pac-12 play with two strong wins over Colorado and Utah at Haas Pavilion, before going 0-for-12 from three-point range against the Ducks and being outscored 42-8 off the bench against the Beavers.

The brace of losses in Oregon moved Cal’s record to 1-5 on the road this season, and that’s just where they head on Thursday, going to Maples Pavilion for a tilt with Stanford, which has won six of the last eight meetings between the two rivals in Palo Alto.

"I like to give everybody credit. I think Oregon and those teams are very good, as well, and playing a tough road game,” said Cardinal head coach Johnny Dawkins, whose team enters the game 9-6, and like Cal, 2-2 in the Pac-12. “This conference is one of the best conferences in the country, so there are going to be no easy games. Everybody's going to go out, and you have to compete for 40 minutes, and try to come out on the winning side of the ledger. Cal is a very talented team. They're a very good team, they're well-coached, and they're a team that will be good throughout the season." The Bears have given up 10 or more turnovers in 13 of 17 games this season, but up north, Cal turned the ball over 34 times to just 18 assists, including six against the Ducks in a 68-65 loss on Jan. 6.

“[Eliminating] four or five key breakdowns in a game, limiting your turnovers, at least try to make your free throws at a 70 percent clip, and you’ll be fine,” said Martin. “The effort is there, and the guys are doing some good things, but you can’t have those types of breakdowns, especially in the turnover department, especially when you’re trying to win games on the road.”

Along with the 34 turnovers over the past two games, the Bears have shot just 28-of-48 from the free throw line (with freshman Jaylen Brown going 6-for-14), and have allowed 25 offensive rebounds, when, combined with the 34 turnovers, created 59 extra possessions for opponents.

"I think, you have professional teams at all levels trying to develop mental toughness; that's why you have great players, that's why you have great teams," Martin said. "You have guys that are special because, in those environments, they perform at a high level. I don't think you need a whole team -- at least, I've never been around a whole team that has mental toughness -- but you have to have key guys that understand what that means and what that feels like, so they can translate that throughout the locker room, or translate that at halftime, or five minutes left in the game: This is what we have to do. One or two guys have to lift everybody up and say, 'Let's go.'"

As well as he performed during the nonconference schedule, Wallace has seemed stuck over the past two games between his motivations to run the team, his ability to do so, and his drive to be a scorer.

“My thing with Tyrone is just play basketball; play the way you play,” Marin said. “Tyrone has a scorer’s mentality, and one thing I always say to him: Make the right play. It’s not necessarily, ‘OK, I go into the game and get 10 assists, or I need to make eight shots.’ Make the right play, the basketball play. In his case, because he’s a guy that transitioned to the point guard position, his mentality is still to score baskets, and I don’t want to take that away from him. When there’s two guys, you have to make the decisions to give the ball up, and make the right decision.” Wallace has struggled over the last two games in doing that, with seven assists to eight turnovers, including five against the Beavers.

Martin has played junior Sam Singer – more of a true distributing point -- at the one for long stretches over the past two games – coincidentally, stretches during which the Bears have been most effective on defense – and has used Singer’s presence to move Wallace off the ball and let him create on the wing.

“We’ll continue to play both of those guys. How many minutes they play depends on the flow of the game and how they’re doing,” Martin said. :A lot of times, you like to take Tyrone off the ball, just to get him moving in different directions, because what happens, when you see him the whole time, it’s taxing to defend him, you trap him on ball screens, you do different things to get the ball out of his hands, but if you take him off the ball, and Sam’s done a tremendous job in my opinion facilitating the offense, getting guys where they need to go and getting shooters shots, getting the ball inside. In a lot of ways, we take [Wallace] off the ball to get him in other spots to be in scoring positions where the defense doesn’t solely identify him in certain spots, but we’ll continue to play both of them.”

What does Singer give the Bears? In a word, Martin said, "Energy."

"He gives us energy, a level of toughess, and I think the biggest key with Sam is, you have to be careful how you speak, but I think he does a good job defending without fouling," Martin said. "For some reason, he's getting called for a few, and his hands are high, so I don't understand that part. I think he's probably had, in the last three games, at least two fouls where I couldn't see it, where his hands are high, he's moving his feet, and they're making calls. That part is tough for a guy to have a level of aggressiveness, and doing exactly what I think the officials say you need to do, and he's getting called for fouls, and it takes him out of the game, because he's a guy I like to have on the floor, because he makes good decisions. He facilitates the offense, and he has a presence on defense." Whoever the point may be, at least on paper, that man has had a variety of options in freshmen Brown, Ivan RabbJabari Bird and Jordan Mathews, but Rabb and Mathews have been somewhat absent of late.

"I think it's difficult at times, but I think I've gotten a lot better with it. You've just got to gauge when to be aggressive, versus when to make a play for someone else. With the increased talent on the team, you've got to think to yourself, 'OK, when does Jordan [Mathews] need a shot,' or, 'How can we get Jabari [Bird] involved, or get Ivan [Rabb] a post touch?' Those are things you have to be cautious of, as a point guard. I think I've done a pretty good job."

In Bird’s first five games coming off the bench, he averaged 11 points and five rebounds per game, shot 47.6% from the field and 41.4% from three-point range. In the six games since that stretch, Bird has averaged 4.5 points and 1.3 rebounds per game, shot 28.1% from the floor and 23.5% from three, going 0-for-9 over the last four games from beyond the arc.

"Just staying aggressive," Martin said, is the key to getting Bird back in the air. "With him, staying aggressive, and we've got to try to find ways, at least early, when he gets in the game, to get him opportunities to score the ball, put him in position to make plays, and just, for him, to stay aggressive. I think that's the biggest key, but not get consumed with it, on the offensive side of the ball, where missing a shot becomes his focus. I don't want him to do that. I want him to be able to play aggressive, play hard and play his game, but not worry about missing shots. Jabari's also a guy who can rebound the basketball better. If he gets a couple of offensive rebounds, get himself in the flow -- you don't want to consume yourself where every shot is a three-point shot, and you're hoping that shot goes in. We've got to find other ways to get him easy baskets."

"He's a true professional. he brings his hard-hat, he doesn't complain, he doesn't make excuses. He knows when he needs to make adjustments ... We need him. In order to do what we need to do, we need him to be successful." -- Cuonzo Martin on Jabari Bird

Mathews, who went 11-of-23 from the floor and 9-of-16 from three-point range against the Buffaloes and the Utes, has gone 5-for-16 from the floor over the last two games.

As Cal’s main threats have gone silent recently, Stanford’s Michael Humphrey has been electric, averaging 14.0 points and 8.1 rebounds over the last seven games, making up for the absence of forward Reid Travis, who’s out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg. Humphrey is eighth in the Pac-12 in blocks (1.7 per game), and 11th in rebounds (7.2 per game). "I'm really proud of Mike,” Dawkins said. “Watching Mike's development, you knew Mike had a chance to be very, very good, but he's really had to step up, with Reid [Travis] being out. He hasn't been reluctant. He's stepped up and he's given that to us. I'm very proud of him for that. He's progressing at a really good rate. I think he's one of the more talented bigs in our conference, and I think he still has a big upside."

"I think Humphrey is playing a physical brand of basketball, and is playing well," said Martin, who will also have to contend with a team that's fifth in the league in conference play in offensive rebounds (12.0 per game).

"They're very aggressive driving the ball. They have Rosco [Allen] at the four, stretch four, so that can create some mismatches, with pick-and-roll," Wallace said of Stanford's 6-foot-9 senior forward, who's also a threat from deep, with half of his field goals (30 of 66) coming from three-point range. "He's able to take advantage of that a little bit, and crash the glass. That's been an area of weakness for us. We have to continue to improve in that area."

Allen ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in three-point field goals per game (2.0) and has recorded multiple three-pointes in 10 games, with at least three triples five times. Allen has 22 three-pointers in his last 10 games.

"One of the most improved players in the league is Rosco Allen," Martin said. "He's done a really good job attacking the rim, and he's always been a guy I thought could catch and shoot very well, but his ability to attack the rim and make plays, keep his team in games, to defend without fouling, he's a very intelligent basketball player."

Without Travis in the frontcourt, things would seem to be open down low in the post for Rabb, Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks, who have had issues with collapsing zones in the low post, particularly against the Beavers, where Okoroh and Rooks sat early with foul trouble, leaving Rabb to be smothered to the tune of just four shots.

"We're going to play our normal defense,” said Dawkins. “For us, we have our system, and we kind of stick with that. We play man, and we play some zone, and we kind of play both. Our guys are kind of used to it. The thing you don't want to do is start coming up with new ways to try to play, and then your players are not prepared, because they're not instinctive anymore, because it's not what they've done all year. You just have to believe in your system, compete hard and go out there with that." That normal defense, Martin said, does include a decent amount of zone, but that’s not going to be what Stanford does for the entire game.

"We saw it a lot against Oregon and Oregon State, and we shot 49 percent at Oregon, 52 percent at Oregon State," Martin said. "We spend more time with it. I think early [in the season], it was more me than the guys, just getting a feel for understanding how to attack a zone. They haven't seemed to be fazed by it, because we spend enough time with it. They recognize when they need to get shots and opportunities."

That's going to mean that Wallace and Singer need to find the big men down low.

"I think it's important to get the ball into the middle of the zone, and work from there," said Wallace. "We get the ball in the middle, then we have inside-outside threes, we've got the post on the duck down, or you can create for yourself, right there, in the high post area."

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