By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com
Let’s start with some perspective: In the modern era of college basketball, we’ll say after 1960, CAL basketball has appeared in the Sweet 16 just twice. Not once have they marched their way into the Elite Eight. 55 years later, the CAL basketball program is being described around the nation as a shoo-in to make the Round of 16, with realistic expectations of a Final Four run. Loaded with a starting lineup consisting of three potential NBA first rounders, a coach with a proven thirst for winning, and a fan base overdue for success, the vibe has never been better along Bancroft Way.
In his first year at the helm in Berkeley, head coach Cuonzo Martin led a relatively young group of Bears to a 7-11 mark in PAC-12 play. With the return of Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird, Coach Martin figured to have a solid core to work around for the 2015-16 campaign. Get one year bigger and stronger, sprinkle in some talented freshmen and go at it in year two. That’s the narrative most Old Blues expected to unfold. What happened next, no one could have predicted.
First, Tyrone Wallace announced he would be returning for his senior year. How Cuonzo convinced Mr. Wallace to stay is anyone’s guess. The 6’5” point guard has been described by NBA scouts as someone ready for the League. He averaged over 17 points last year in a tough PAC-12. Most expected him to move on to greener pastures, but Cuonzo convinced him otherwise. The first domino had fallen.
With senior facilitator Wallace committed for one more year, Cuonzo set off into the deep dark waters of big time college basketball recruiting in search of the biggest fish he could find. His SEC roots led him first to Georgia, where he fell in love with All-Everything Jaylen Brown. A top-five blue chip recruit destined for the NBA. A player the likes of Coach K and Calipari and Izzo all salivate over. The type of player that doesn’t move to Berkeley to play amateur basketball for a year. Cuonzo still went after him.
Yet no matter how thick of a sales pitch Coach Martin had up his sleeve, he would need one more piece of bait to reel in a player of his stature. Namely a top-10 national recruit that could help clean the glass, distract the defense and catch lobs for 40 minutes a night. That’s where Ivan Rabb came in.
At 6’11” and skilled, Rabb too had options of his own. Virtually any school in the country was clamoring for his services, namely the Arizona Wildcats. Young Ivan was still undecided when he took the floor of the California State Championship Game vs. So-Cal power Mater Dei. Conveniently, the Saturday night game was played inside Haas Pavilion, in front of a loud, passionate crowd not only rooting for a Bishop O’ Dowd win, but to “Beat L.A.” Rabb clearly enjoyed the atmosphere, winning the game in the final seconds with a clutch free-throw and bringing his Oakland high school their first state title in 34 years. As students and fans rushed the floor to celebrate the triumph, you could almost see Ivan thinking, “Hey, I could really get used to this whole scene.”
Days later, Rabb signed on to be a Bear, spurning Arizona in the eleventh hour. Now with his first big fish in the ice chest, Cuonzo got greedy and went looking for more. If the best player in the nation in Ben Simmons signed with LSU, maybe Cuonzo could convince Jaylen Brown to come to CAL.
How Cuonzo really convinced Brown to pick CAL is tough to tell. Some point to the fact that Cuonzo had a relationship with him during his days at Tennessee. Others claim that Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a graduate of Brown's Georgia high school, played a major role. What we do know, is that Brown took an unexpected unofficial visit to Berkeley (Brown had to pay) and took a look around the Bay Area and sat down with Coach Martin. Kentucky, North Carolina and Michigan all bent over backward for the ultra-athletic swingman. But, out of nowhere, Jaylen Brown announced he would be taking his talents to Berkeley.
Suddenly, CAL boasted a starting five with three McDonald’s All-Americans (Brown, Rabb, and Bird), as well as two future pros (Wallace and Mathews). After the dust settled from Martin’s unprecedented recruiting haul, Martin said simply, “You work hard, do your job to the best of your ability and it goes back to building relationships over time. Then sometimes you’re blessed with a gift.”
If looking at the history of CAL basketball tells us anything, it’s that talent matters a whole lot. Certainly, having phenomenal coaches like Lou Campanelli and Mike Montgomery is a blessing and a backbone for any basketball program. But, as most coaches will tell you, it’s the players on the floor that makes the most impact. When Todd Bozeman led the Bears past Duke into the Sweet 16 in 1993, he was only 29-years-old. Surely, Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray were running that show. In ‘97, the last time CAL made the Sweet 16, Ben Braun was in just his first year at CAL. Safe to say Ed Gray, Tony Gonzalez, Alfred Grigsby and Randy Duck were mainly responsible for that run. As these coaches logged more experience in Berkeley, they didn’t necessarily have more success. Talent was the not-so-secret sauce.
Cuonzo Martin seems to understand this trend, judging by the way he’s pursued the best talent in the country to set up his program for success. It also doesn’t hurt that CAL’s second year head coach was a star player himself at Purdue alongside Big Dog Glenn Robinson. Neither does it hurt that he learned to coach under Gene Keady, played in the NBA, beat cancer, and navigated the mean streets of East Saint Louis as a youth. As a head coach, Cuonzo has taken struggling programs in Missouri State and Tennessee and put them back on solid ground. He’s already done exactly that during his short stint in Berkeley.
The new-look Bears will officially take the floor for the first time together this Friday night at home versus Rice. Ranked 14th in the nation, most hoop pundits foresee a second place finish in the PAC-12 for the Bears behind mainstay Arizona. The main question marks surrounding CAL are whether they will be able to share the ball and defend consistently. Critics also wonder how accurate Jaylen Brown will shoot and how strong Ivan Rabb will be in the paint.
Most of these questions will be answered during CAL’s non-conference schedule starting this weekend. This Monday the Bears will host UC Santa Barbara of the Big West and over Thanksgiving they will square off with San Diego State former Fab-Five head coach Steve Fisher. Most likely, CAL will meet Bob Huggins and West Virginia on day two of their Las Vegas’ T-Day tourney. Other notable non-conference games include a mid-December home game vs. St. Mary’s of Moraga, an ESPN televised roadie at Virginia, and a post Christmas game against Steph Curry’s alma mater Davidson.
Barring a disaster, CAL will be firmly in the mix when Selection Sunday rolls around in March. If all goes according to plan, the Bears will own a favorable seed heading into the Big Dance, with plenty of late-night SportsCenter highlights already under their belt. As every CAL fan can attest, what will happen in postseason play is tough to tell. God knows Bears supporters have endured their share of heartbreaking seasons (the 2015 Bears Football recent four game skid comes to mind). But will the talent Cuonzo Martin has assembled in Berkeley (he even added Steve Kerr’s son for good measure), the sky really is the limit in Berkeley.