Cuonzo Martin

California's Jaylen Brown lays up a shot against Oregon State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot

California forward Brown enters NBA Draft

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With two highly regarded freshmen on the roster, California head coach Cuonzo Martin had to prepare for the possibility that at least one of them would be leaving Berkeley after one season. That came to fruition Thursday afternoon, as Jaylen Brown announced at a press conference on campus that he will forego his final three seasons of eligibility and enter the 2016 NBA Draft.

Projected to be a lottery pick in this summer’s Draft by DraftExpress.com, it comes as no surprise that the Georgia native would decide to move on.

Brown averaged 14.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game this season, shooting 43.1 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from beyond the arc. The perimeter shot is the area where Brown will need to show improvement during pre-Draft workouts, as he’s a physically gifted talent who managed to hurt opponents via dribble penetration on many occasions playing either the three or as an undersized four.

With Brown moving on Cal is still awaiting a decision from power forward Ivan Rabb, who some believe may be more likely to remain on campus for another season. But with just one player in their 2016 recruiting class (junior college transfer Don Coleman; UNLV transfer Jordan Cornish will have to sit out next season), Martin and his staff have some work to do even if Rabb were to return.

Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird are both expected to return for their senior seasons, as is reserve Roger Moute a Bidias.

Utah beats California in OT, advances to first-ever Pac-12 title game

Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak motions to his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against California in the semifinals of the Pac-12 men's tournament Friday, March 11, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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When hired as Utah head coach in 2011, Larry Krystkowiak took on what at the time was a monumental task. The program, which finished below .500 in each of the two seasons prior to Krystkowiak’s arrival, was making the move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 and a lot of work needed to be done to ensure that the program would not only be competitive in its new home but successful as well.

That first team won just six games, but Krystkowiak and his staff steadily rebuilt the Utah program, and last season the Runnin’ Utes made their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2005. Late Friday night Utah took another step forward, as they advanced to the Pac-12 tournament title game for the first time in program’s brief history in the conference with an 82-78 overtime win over No. 3 seed California.

Lorenzo Bonam’s coast to coast drive for a layup that left his hand just before time expired pushed the game into overtime, and in the extra session the Runnin’ Utes were able to grab control of the game and hold off the Golden Bears in the end.

Last year’s team had a first round draft pick in Delon Wright, and this year’s group is anchored by a projected lottery pick in sophomore center Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl’s ability to not only score from 15 feet and in but also find open teammates makes him a tough matchup. And with this being the case, Cal made the decision to defend him straight up as opposed to sending double teams on the catch or first dribble.

As a result Poeltl finished the game with 29 points and 11 rebounds, outplaying the Golden Bear front line. What helped Cal was the fact that Utah shot just 7-for-21 from three, and fellow forward Kyle Kuzma had a quiet night with just five points. But Bonam added 18 points, and senior Brandon Taylor adding 12 points on 4-for-8 shooting from the field.

Both teams found the going tough at times offensively, with Cal’s Jaylen Brown shooting 3-for-17 from the field and fellow freshman Ivan Rabb being held in check until he made a couple key shots late in regulation. But in the extra session it was Utah that executed well enough to get the shots they needed to pick up the win. That goes hand in hand with the questions some have asked regarding the Golden Bears’ ability to finish close games against quality competition.

Cal’s done a very good job of this at home, where they finished the season undefeated, but that hasn’t carried over into games away from home. There was the loss at Virginia in December, and the collapse at Arizona just last week. Of course there’s no shame in losing to a Virginia, Arizona or Utah, but given the talent and the teams they’ll need to beat in order to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament Cal needs to get better in tight situations.

While Cal will return home to get ready for the NCAA tournament, Utah will look to come up with a strategy that can be successful against an Oregon team that swept the season series. And in Utah’s fifth season as a member of the Pac-12, a win over the Ducks would be a watershed moment for a program that has steadily developed into one capable of sustaining (and building upon) this success for years to come.

 

No. 18 Arizona uses late rally to beat No. 25 California

Arizona guard Gabe York (1) reacts after Arizona defeated UCLA 81-75 during an NCAA college basketball game, Friday, Feb 12, 2016, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
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While ranked within the top 20 of the national polls, No. 18 Arizona has a résumé that could use another quality victory when it comes to their NCAA tournament seeding. Add in the fact that they were swept on the road last week, and Thursday’s home game against No. 25 California was a critical contest for a team in need of some positive momentum.

It was a struggle for the Wildcats, but thanks to a game-ending 11-0 run sparked by senior guard Gabe York Arizona managed to pull out the 64-61 victory.

York, who didn’t score in the first half, racked up 19 points in the second half and hit three three-pointers during the decisive run. As a team Arizona shot 50 percent from the field in the second half, with York’s improved scoring serving as the spark the team needed offensively. And against a team that even with its recent hot streak remains a bit of a question mark away from Berkeley, that proved to be enough in the end.

However, the rebounding effort (or lack thereof) put forth by Arizona nearly cost them the game.

Arizona’s first-shot defense was very good, as Cal shot just 36.5 percent from the field on the night. But where the Golden Bears, most notably freshman Ivan Rabb, were able to get their points was on the offensive glass. Cal rebounded 47.4 percent of its available missed shots, converting 18 offensive rebounds into 28 second-chance points.

Arizona’s been one of the nation’s best on the defensive glass this season, but that wasn’t the case against a team that entered the game ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding percentage. Add in stretches in both halves in which the ball seemed to stick and the player movement stalled offensively, and Arizona wasn’t at their best on this night.

Some nights it’s about finding a way to win even when things aren’t working as planned, and Arizona managed to do that Thursday night. But if Arizona is to have a shot at playing deep into the NCAA tournament, they’ll need to be more consistent than they’ve been in recent games.

California tightens Pac-12 race with blowout of No. 11 Oregon

California's Jabari Bird celebrates a score against Oregon in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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With No. 11 Oregon sitting atop the Pac-12 standings, Thursday night represented a great opportunity for California to add a quality win to its NCAA tournament résumé. Sure enough, Cuonzo Martin’s team took full advantage, getting off to a hot start and not looking back in an 83-63 victory.

The beating was a complete one, as the Golden Bears shot 55.7 percent from the field and 9-for-16 from three, playing aggressively on that end of the floor. Cal playing well at home isn’t a shock, as they’re now 15-0 at Haas Pavilion this season. What was shocking was the fact that they made Oregon look powerless to do anything about it. Jabari Bird produced his best game of the season, scoring 24 points, and three other Golden Bears managed to score in double figures as well.

Tyrone Wallace made his return to the lineup after missing nearly four weeks with a hand injury and that helped, but the bigger star at the point was junior Sam Singer. Singer dished out ten of Cal’s 19 assists on the night, at times passing up a quality shot opportunity to get a teammate an even better look. That’s what this team needs from him, especially with Wallace back in the rotation, and he’s more than capable of filling that role.

Cal executed better than Oregon and they also outworked the Ducks, rebounding 40 percent of their missed shots and scoring 27 second-chance points. In many of Oregon’s games in conference play their versatility has won out, as Dana Altman’s team can attack the opposition in a variety of ways from multiple areas. The tables turned Thursday night, giving Oregon a bit of a wake-up call heading into the stretch run.

Cal provided a reminder of what they’re capable of doing when clicking on all cylinders, and they’ve also managed to tighten up a race that appeared to have a clear favorite. As a result of Cal’s win Oregon is now tied with USC in the loss column, and the top seven teams are separated by a total of two games. The Golden Bears are part of that group due to their unblemished home record, and their ability to put it all together at Haas was never in question.

But if the Golden Bears are to play their way into a comfortable position in regards to the NCAA tournament and experience success once there, they have to figure out a way to take this level of play on the road (1-8 away from Berkeley). With four of their final seven games away from Berkeley, whether or not Cal can do so will determine their fate come Selection Sunday.

California picks up much-needed win over No. 12 Arizona

Arizona's Kadeem Allen, right, looks to pass away from California's Jordan Mathews (24) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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Playing their first week of games without injured point guard Tyrone Wallace, California is in a position where they need to start putting together some quality wins for their NCAA tournament hopes. And with their best win coming at home against Saint Mary’s, Saturday’s game against No. 12 Arizona set up as a big one for Cuonzo Martin’s Golden Bears.

Cal managed to survive a Gabe York missed shot in the final seconds, beating Arizona 74-73 with Jordan Mathews scoring a game-high 28 points to lead the way. Mathews came off the bench Saturday night, with Cal tinkering with a rotation that took the hit of Wallace’s injury, and he gave them much-needed scoring in the sixth man role.

That was a spot in which Jabari Bird never seemed completely comfortable earlier in the season, and over the last three games Bird’s averaging nearly 13 points per game as a starter. Add in two gifted freshmen in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, and two big men in Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh who can play the five and thus keep Rabb at his more natural power forward position, and there’s no denying that the Golden Bears have talent than could potentially be dangerous in the NCAA tournament.

The issue was that Cal’s credentials, as noted above, were (and to a certain extent still are) lacking. Saturday’s win over Arizona, which has now lost four games by a total of ten points, helps in that regard as Cal looks to ensure that their name will be called Selection Sunday. Even with the loss of Wallace, who should be back before the end of the regular season, the Golden Bears have the personnel needed to account for that personnel loss.

Against Arizona Mathews came off the bench to serve as the team’s best scorer, with Brown showing that he can make plays for both himself and for others (15 points, seven assists) offensively.

The key now for Cal is to take the momentum gained from this home sweep of the Arizona schools on the road, beginning with their trip to Utah/Colorado next week. And for a team in need of quality wins away from Berkeley, that road trip sets up as a big one when it comes to California’s NCAA tournament hopes.

California puts forth another solid defensive effort, beats No. 21 Utah

California's Ivan Rabb encourages the crowd to cheer in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Saint Mary's Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
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After dropping games to San Diego State and Richmond in Las Vegas during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, California was a team cited by some as a disappointment of sorts. Cuonzo Martin’s roster, a combination of some talented returnees led by senior Tyrone Wallace and high-level freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, had yet to mesh and the team wasn’t defending at the level their head coach demanded of them.

Since that trip to Vegas the Golden Bears have won eight of their last nine games with the lone defeat coming at No. 5 Virginia, and they’ve been much better defensively as well. Sunday night California took care of No. 21 Utah 71-58, moving to 2-0 in Pac-12 play.

Most importantly for the Golden Bears moving forward is the fact that this team has an identity defensively, something that wasn’t the case in those losses to the Aztecs and Spiders. Cal’s done a better job of keeping teams from getting out in the open floor, and in the half-court they’ve been incredibly stingy. Cal limited Utah to 38.5 percent shooting on the night, which includes 2-for-12 from beyond the arc, limiting the Runnin’ Utes’ quality shot opportunities and forcing them to make challenged looks.

And it was a collective effort for the Golden Bears, with Rabb stepping forward and fellow big men Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh coming off the bench to help defend Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl, the Pac-12’s best big man, scored 19 points but he needed 14 shots to do so (making six), with Cal’s big men making his touches difficult and challenging most of his field goal attempts.

Add in their ability to contain Utah’s supplementary scorers, and Cal was able to produce another solid defensive performance.

On the season Cal ranks in the top ten nationally in both effective field goal (41.9 percent; seventh) and two-point percentage (37.2 percent; first) defense, key areas to control given the fact that they don’t turn opponents over all that often. Utah committed nine turnovers Sunday night, with Cal converting those miscues into 14 points on the other end.

And even though Cal doesn’t play fast, they have enough to turn the few turnovers they force into scoring opportunities.

There’s no shortage of players who can put up points, with Rabb in the post, Brown (nine points, seven rebounds, four assists) on the wing and Wallace (ten points, six assists) and Jordan Mathews (14 points) being the team’s best perimeter options. But even with that being the case, California has to consistently defend at the level they have during this current 8-1 stretch if they’re to be the team many envisioned them being before the season began.

It took some time for that to get through to the Golden Bears. But with the improved focus on defense, California has looked like a team worthy of the “contender” label in the Pac-12.