Tough Times Don't Last; Tough People Do
On the Islands, aloha means 'hello' and 'goodbye,' and going into Friday's 11 a.m. game against No. 13-seed Hawaii in the first round of the NCAA Tournament -- California's first March Madness game since 2013 -- the Bears have been saying more goodbyes than hellos.
During Cal's Real Talk sessions, a practice head coach Cuonzo Martin brought from his previous stops, the Bears players talk about issues outside of basketball, or even scandals in basketball, going on around the country, and how that plays into larger moral and ethical issues. The Warriors have certainly had to deal with issues like that.
But now, it's the Bears who are in the crosshairs.
"It's been a rough week," said junior Jabari Bird. "We've had ups and downs throughout the entire year, so it's nothing new for us."
That's an understatement. What Cal has undergone this week isn't just a 1-8 start away from Haas Pavilion, or even enduring four games where Jaylen Brown has shot 9-for-42 from the field. Those are mere jabs compared to the body bows the Bears have endured over the past four days.
Cal is now the program everyone is talking about, and not for the right reasons.
It's not because the Bears have two potential NBA Draft Lottery picks in Brown and fellow freshman Ivan Rabb ("I don't understand how this team lost 10 games," said analyst Charles Barkley on Selection Sunday).
It's not because they're the highest seed in the program's history.
It's because one of their coaches -- Yann Hufnagel -- is in the process of being fired for sexual harassment, their head coach -- a man who survived growing up in East St. Louis and has survived cancer -- is under the microscope because of discrepancies in accounts of when he knew the degree of Hufnagel's transgressions, and their starting senior point guard and leading scorer -- Tyrone Wallace -- broke his hand for the second time this season, and will be out for the Tournament.
You want Real Talk? It doesn't get much more real than this.
"It's no distraction," maintained Bird. "They're both two unfortunate events that happened this week, earlier, but we came here to win a basketball game, and that's all the main focus is."
It's not like the Warriors have trodden an easy path, either. In April of 2015, Eran Ganot -- at the time, an associate head coach under Randy Bennet for St. Mary's -- was named the head coach at Hawaii. In December, the program was hammered by the NCAA for the conduct of former coach Gib Arnold. The Warriors were placed on three years' probation when it was discovered that Arnold violated ethical conduct rules and "provided false or misleading information." Hawaii lost two scholarships over the next two years, and cannot play in the postseason during the 2016-17 academic year, and fined itself $10,000. The program also has to pay a penalty equaling 1 percent of the basketball program's budget over the previous three years.
"We went from, when I got to Hawaii, in an uncertain situation, and we went from uncertainty to clarity, neither of which were very good," Ganot said. "In the meantime, one of the easiest things to say, and the hardest things to do, is to control what you can control, and the guys have done a tremendous job of that."
The Warriors went 27-5, bulldozed their way through the Big West Tournament, and earned the conference's only bid into the NCAA Tournament.
"It's the first thing we talk about every day -- before the X's and O's and all that stuff -- we spend every morning, and think every night about, one, our players, the people in our program, communicating with them, making sure we're on the same page, understanding what's coming," Ganot said. "I think these guys have done a tremendous job of staying locked in to the moment."
Martin has taken the same tack this week.
"Sometimes, programs go through things that are not necessarily talked about, but for us, it's a bump in a road," he said on Thursday. "We continue to push forward, because this is good times right now. You have 68 teams in the NCAA tournament, so you work hard to get to this point. You're supposed to rejoice and enjoy this, and have a lot of fun with it. That's what we'll do."
The Thieves in the Night
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1650325-jaylen-brown-in-a-... For the Bears -- ranked No. 13 in the preseason, and finally sneaking back into the top 25 at No. 24 by winning nine of their last 11 games -- the best of times certainly have turned into the worst of times of late, but for the Warriors, this season has been nothing but upside.
Point guard Roderick Bobbitt is 37th in the nation in assists per game (5.5), can create off the dribble and ranks 13th in steals per game (2.19). He's one of four Warriors who average over 1.0 steal per game, and Hawaii ranks 28th in the nation in steals per game as a team (7.9). He also ranks second among the Warriors with 6.6 rebounds per game
"I think Bobbitt is one of the elite guards, who has quickness, who has toughness, he plays hard, he competes," Martin said.
Sophomore shooting guard Aaron Valdes is averaging 1.2 steals per game a year after averaging 1.7, and is Hawaii's second-leading scorer, averaging 14.6 points per game, and he's second on the team in rebounding, with 5.5 per game.
"He's about 6-5, 6-6, and he can go inside-outside," Martin said. "In some ways, he's similar to Jabari and Jaylen, with that size, but he can do both. He can score off the bounce, he can make three-point shots, he scores in transition, he'll post you up, as well, so he puts you in a lot of different binds. You have to be physically ready to defend him, but you also have to be able to defend on the perimeter."
As active as Bobbitt and Valdes are, that's not good news for Cal, which ranks 127th in the nation in turnovers per game (12.2), with Brown averaging 2.97 turnovers per game -- 76th most in the nation.
During the Pac-12 Tournament, Brown attributed his struggles of late to thinking too much.
"He came in [Monday] morning to watch tape, watched his shots, paying attention to where he's catching the ball, when he's attacking, when he should have shot the jump shot, when he should have posted up and made an aggressive move," Martin said. "He sees it from that standpoint. The bottom line for him is just playing the game, because he has a cerebral approach to the game, but sometimes, it's a matter of just playing and going."
When Brown was thrust into the role of backup point guard during Wallace's initial convalescence, he didn't think. He just played. He averaged 3.0 assists per game, but also averaged 3.0 turnovers. He did, though, average 19.2 points per game during that stretch -- his best five-game average of the season.
"We just need him to be aggressive at all times," Martin said. "I do think some of the games -- at Arizona -- with the way the game was officiated, where there were charge calls, it took a little aggressiveness out of him, so we've got to get him back to where he's attacking and making plays."
Fouls are very likely going to be a major factor in the game. Hawaii is one of the most-penalized teams in the nation, averaging 20.5 personal fouls per game (254th). The Bears aren't far behind, with 20.7 (265th).
The Warriors, though, are adept at drawing fouls, as well, with the fifth-most fouls taken in the nation. Cal is 319th in the country in foul shooting (65.6%).
Battle of the Bigs
While Brown has been struggling mightily, after a five-game stretch where he went 10-for-22 from three-point land and averaged 6.8 rebounds and 16 points per game, his fellow freshman Rabb couldn't be playing much better.
En route to earning All-Pac-12 Tournament honors last week, Rabb has averaged 15.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game over the last five games, and flashed his outside shot with a three-pointer against Arizona, a shot that he's had in his back pocket since high school.
Of course, as good as the 6-foot-11, 225-pound Rabb has been, Hawaii's big man -- 6-foot-11, 235-pound Stefan Jankovic -- is famous for his outside game. He's averaging 2.5 three-point field goal tries per game, and he's hit 39.5% from beyond the arc. In keeping with the Warriors M.O., he's also nails at the free throw line, hitting 76.75 of his shots.
"Stefan, he was a freshman when I was at Tennessee, and he was at Missouri, and you saw his skill level, and what he was capable of doing," Martin said. "He's had a great career thus far. He can score the ball, can post up and make shots, can put the ball on the floor. He gets out of a lot of binds with his size and his skill package. Most traditional big guys struggle with defending him."
Jankovic leads Hawaii in rebounding (6.6), scoring (15.7 ppg), blocked shots (38) and field goal percentage (55.7), and that 39.3% three-point percentage is also tops on the roster.
"I think he's in the ballpark with all those guys because of his size, his ability to score, to face up and make plays," Martin said. "He's a talented basketball player. He shoots the three-point shots, almost shoots 60 percent from the field, almost 40 percent from the three-point line, almost 16 points a game, and he's probably seeing a double-team every night. It's not an easy thing to do."
Given Jankovic's quickness and mobility, putting Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh on him is perhaps a fool's errand. Both struggled against teams that tended to go small -- notably Oregon State. In fact, when asked to compare the Warriors to teams they'd faced, Cal wing Jordan Mathews mentioned the Beavers.
"Throughout Pac-12 play, you get a lot of different looks, but they present some different things, in terms of they really want to drive the ball. They're great at drawing fouls," Mathews said. "They share [the ball]. They draw some similarities to Oregon State, in the film I've seen, but they're very unique. They have a five-man [Jankovic] who can pick and pop. We've seen a couple of those, but nothing like him, before. They're a good team. Nothing I've seen before, but we're ready."
So, who takes the Jankovic job? Rabb.
"Ivan will defend him," Martin said, "but Kam and Kingsley have to guard him as well, though it won't be easy, because he moves so well on the perimeter, but both of those guys will be able to guard him. For the most part, depending on the game, it's likely to be Ivan on him moreso than those guys."
Giving Jankovic the challenge of trying to defeat the quick-footed and very polished Rabb down low could get him in foul trouble, and with their leading scorer handcuffed, Hawaii could struggle. By the same token, if Jankovic draws Rooks and Okoroh out to the perimeter, Cal is going to be left susceptible to the Warriors driving on the inside.
The Elephant (Not) in the Room
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1652595-update-wallace-out... There's a reason that the betting line on this game went from Cal -7 to Cal -4.5 overnight: The loss of Tyrone Wallace.
"We have a pretty good routine with the way we go about things, and our preparation always starts with us," Ganot said. "We've been preparing. I think instead of a complete overhaul, obviously it's a little wrinkle here and there. This is a team that is far from one-dimensional, and this is a team that is very talented. This is a team that's very well-coached. They defend, they rebound, they share the ball. They've played without Wallace before, obviously, a five-game stretch, and they performed. We'll obviously look during those five games. There are just so many points of attack that they have that can come at you, so we're going to continue to prepare."
Speaking of that defense, the Bears are still the best team in the nation in two-point field goal defense (40.9%) and are 52nd in the nation in scoring defense (67.0 ppg). The Bears are 35th in the nation in defensive efficiency (.947 points per opponent possession), but the Warriors are no slouch, coming in sixth (.910).
The senior out of Bakersfield, Calif., has been the engine that makes Cal go since returning from a broken hand, but now that he's broken the same hand again, and is out for the duration of the Tournament, that's 15.3 points per game off the board for the Bears.
'"He averaged 15 [points], 5 [rebounds] and 5 [assists], so we're going to have to pick up the slack in all those areas," said Mathews. "He's a big-time rebounding guard, scoring in a lot of ways. But, I think we're a deep team, a relatively experienced team with the juniors we have. So, I think we'll be able to pick up what Tyrone left. Like I said, it's unfortunate, and we'll miss him a lot, but we have to win this ballgame."
Though Sam Singer will play the point -- and he's more a true distributor than a scorer -- those points are going to need to come from somewhere. Singer, though, is arguably the better defender, someone that Martin said should have been named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive team.
"Big-time confidence in Sam," Mathews said. "You see how hard he works, he puts in the effort. He goes hard, he can pass. We saw it early in the year, when Tyrone broke his hand the first time. Sam took the reins from there, and there was very little drop-off. He did a great job facilitating and being a floor general out there, like we need him to be. I have the utmost confidence in Sam, heading into tomorrow's game."
The missing points will likely come from both Bird and Mathews. Bird has struggled for two seasons, dealing with injuries and unfulfilled promise as a five-star recruit out of Richmond (Calif.) Salesian, but this year, he's posted career-bests in three-point shooting (40.9%), field goal percentage (46.1%), turnovers per game (0.8) and rebounds (3.3). Over the past 10 games, he's averaged 14.1 points, well above his season average of 10.4. During that stretch, he's shot 27-for 50 from beyond the three-point arc (54%).
“I think it’s a credit to Jabari, first and foremost, with his ability to stay locked in, to not get discouraged, even when his shots aren’t falling, when he doesn’t feel like the game is going his way," Martin said. "He continues to work on his game, and continues to get better, and really work on things he needs to get better. I think he’s still an aggressive scorer. He’s an aggressive shooter. I think that really helps his game, a lot.”