Jabari Bird could be the key against UCLA if Cal is to keep home win streak going

We take a deep dive inside the numbers as Cal readies to host UCLA in a Thursday tilt at Haas Pavilion. Could we see the Bears' difficulties against the zone rear their ugly head again?

California (19-8, 9-5 in Pac-12) vs. UCLA (15-12, 6-8)

When: 6:00 p.m. Pacific, Thurs., Feb. 25
Where: Haas Pavilion, Berkeley, Calif.
TV: ESPN2 (Dave Pasch, Bill Walton)
Radio: KSFO 560 AM - Todd McKim, Jay John
Notes: Thursday's game is a white-out at Haas. A gold-out against Arizona and a stripe-out against Stanford each saw wins for the Golden Bears earlier this season.

California has been as schizophrenic as NCAA basketball teams can be. Until this past week, the Bears were 1-8 on the road, and 16-0 at home. Head coach Cuonzo Martin had never seen that type of dichotomy in his entire career in coaching.

What he has seen, however, is a major uptick at the ends of seasons. In his four seasons before coming to Berkeley, Martin’s teams went 28-8 in their final nine games. Well, the Bears have four more contests left on the docket, and have won each of their last five games. That’s no accident, Martin said, this week.

“I think it’s tightening the screws up defensively,” Martin said. “Guys continue to get better. As the season goes on, we try to stay consistent. One of the things I’ve always tried to do, even in the midst of going through a season, when you lose games and you hit tough patches, I’m not one of those guys to beat guys down after every loss, like it’s the end of the world. We just learn from it. We keep moving.”

“The five wins is big for us, especially coming towards the end of the season,” said junior wing Jabari Bird. “It puts us in position to win the conference. We’re in a good spot. We’re really confident right now.”

On the season, Cal is 182nd in the nation in three-point defense (34.7%), but over the last five games, the Bears have held opponents to a paltry 28.2% from beyond the arc. Cal has, however, allowed 43.3% of two-pointers to land in the last five, as opposed to a 40.4% mark on the season (first in the nation). The good news for Cal? Home cooking is good for the defense, as the Bears rank fifth in the nation in two-point field goal percentage defense at home (39.2%).

The Bruins come in ranking 64th in the nation in three-point shooting (37.1%), and over the last six games, UCLA is hitting 38.7% from long distance.

UCLA has two of the Pac-12’s top 10 scorers (Isaac Hamilton is fourth with 17.0, and Bryce Alford is sixth with 16.1 ppg), and the Bruins own the fifth-best scoring offense in the Pac-12.

Hamilton has scored in double figures in each of the last 23 games, the longest streak for the Bruins since Kevin Love scored at least 10 in all 39 games of the 2007-08 season. Hamilton is eighth in the Pac-12 in three-point field goals made (1.9 per game), and has averaged 18.5 points per Pac-12 game, the second-highest in the conference. During his 14 conference games, Hamilton has shot 50% from the field, and 46.4% from three-point range.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1644981-bear-republic-podc... Freshman guard Aaron Holiday is also a scoring threat, averaging 10.7 points, 3.9 assists and 2.9 rebounds, starting all 27 games. Holiday is hitting three-pointers at a 41% clip, while Alford is shooting 36.5% from beyond the arc, and Hamilton 40.9% on the season.

 “They have three perimeter guys who can shoot it well, so you can’t just hone in on one or two guys,” Martin said. “They have big guys who can score. [Thomas] Welsh is probably one of the better-shooting big men in all of college basketball.”

Welsh is 88th in the nation in effective field goal percentage (59.8%), and is averaging 11.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.

Welsh and big man Tony Parker are first and second in the Pac-12 in offensive rebounds, and it was Welsh’s lobbying that got Parker back off the bench following a five-game stint, after he’d started the first 21 games.

With Parker and Welsh back on the floor together against Colorado, UCLA went wild with a 77-53 win, shooting 30-of-60 and 11-of-20 from three. Welsh went 5-of-7 with 6 rebounds, 10 points in 20 minutes, his best game in two weeks. Parker played 20 minutes, went 2-of-10 from the field, 4-of-6 at the line, 6 rebounds, 16 points.

Parker had been benched in favor of the more nimble Jonah Bolden, but after making the switch, the Bruins lost three of the next four games.

In 21 starts before hitting the pine, Parker was averaging 28.2 minutes per game, then 16.0 minutes per game over the next five, when Bolden took over.

The Bruins have been looking for some kind of spark for the majority of the season. After being a preseason favorite to reach the NCAA Tournament, picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12, UCLA has gone just 10-9 since dealing a big loss to then-No. 1 Kentucky early in the season, and the Bruins on the outside looking in when it comes to Tournament selection, with a 15-12 overall record, and a 6-8 mark in conference.

“They can really score the ball, and I think they defend,” said Martin. “I just think what happens, when you have the ability to score the way they score the ball, you have so many guys that can score, and similar to our team, where you don't have a lot of guys with defensive DNA, where they like shutting guys down. They have a lot of guys that can really score the ball and really make plays, so they play man and zone. They have the guys who can do it. They have athletes, but they have so many guys that I think makes it tough for teams they play against because they can really score the ball.”

One of the big notes from that Colorado win was the fact that UCLA played zone defense for almost the entire game, with both Parker and Bolden in at the same time.

That’s good and bad – Cal is certainly on an upswing when shooting it from three-point range, but Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh – while they pulled down 19 total rebounds in one game last week – have not shown an ability to consistently stay out of foul trouble, and while freshman Ivan Rabb can go face-to-face with Bolden (6-foot-10, 220 pounds), he’s going to have a tougher go of it against Parker (6-foot-9, 260 pounds) and Welsh (7-foot, 245), and an even tougher time if both Parker and Bolden are on the floor at the same time.

“We have guys that can make shots and make plays. I think our guys are excited that they played the zone the whole game, especially guys that shoot the ball,” said Martin before almost immediately contradicting himself. “We’ve still got to pound the ball inside. It can’t be a lot of three-point shots.”

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1553278-cal-will-not-visit... Shooting teams out of the zone was a trouble spot for Cal early in the season, but over the last five games, the Bears have gone 39-of-86 (45.3%) from three-point range over the winning streak, compared to a 37.1% mark on the season.

Over the first four games of the streak, Rabb averaged just 4.5 shots per game, and while he took five last time out, and got to the free throw line five times (making all five), he’s still going to need to be effective inside, if the Bears are to get anything going from the outside and perhaps break the zone. One of the keys to that outside shooting is going to be Bird. After a Pac-12 Player of the Week nod a week ago, Bird went 1-of-5 from the field against Washington, and bounced back to go 4-of-6 against Washington State, including a 3-for-3 mark from beyond the arc.

If Bird can get going early, he can take pressure off the inside, but it’s a catch-22. The inside has to work for the outside to be effective, and vice versa.

The key for Bird is to get his legs under him early. The last two games he’s hit his first three-pointer, he’s gone a combined 7-of-11 from beyond the arc.

“Teammates have been doing a great job in finding me,” Bird said. “I’m getting great looks, hitting open shots. When guys pull up too hard, I’m trying to get to the rim and make plays for others. The game has been easy the past few weeks for me, with so many options on the floor to pay attention to, I think teams kind of forget that I’m out there. I kind of like that.”

Bird feels more confident in his game at this point in the season, especially when he’s getting more lift on his three-pointers. It’s observable in warm-ups: If Bird is jumping out of the gym, it’s going to be a good night from the floor.

“I don’t know what it was, but I guess it’s having lift in my legs,” Bird said. “I try to get a lot of lift and arc on the ball. Sometimes, it comes up short; sometimes it doesn’t, but I don’t think about that, too much.”

Bird is averaging 15 points in the past five games, and scored in double digits in four of those five.

“It changes our team a lot,” said senior point guard Tyrone Wallace. “The defenders, they have to guard and have to worry about Jabari. You can’t just leave him open to go help, so that’s one less defender that you have to worry about when guys like me and Jaylen [Brown] are attacking the rim. Ivan, the big guys have the ball in the paint, so you can’t really dig off of him and scrape, because he’s been knocking it down. He opens up the floor for us, and guys have to be closer to him and pay attention. That makes it easier for drivers and post players.”

What’s helped Cal in terms of shooting has been the fact that, over the last five games, the ball hasn’t been sticking. The Bears are moving the ball around more via the pass, as opposed to dribbling around the perimeter. Making the extra pass against the zone is key, as is not settling for shots early in the clock. Over the first 22 games, Cal saw assists on 48.7% of its field goal attempts. Over the past five games, that number has shot up to 56%. Over the last three games, the Bears’ assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.44, as opposed to 1.01 over the course of the season.

“I think it has to do with us trying to take better care of the basketball, making the right decisions, making plays, making plays for your teammates, but I still think, last game, we had 13 turnovers, and I still think that’s a lot of turnovers in a game,” said Martin. “You can’t get careless with the basketball, especially when you have big leads. I think that has more to do with focus, than anything. I don’t really get consumed with it. I like to share the ball, and I like to get assists, make plays, score the basketball, but more than anything, we just talk about making the right plays. It’s not necessarily the number of assists we need to have; it’s about making the right play.”

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