By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com
For anyone who has been around Cuonzo Martin, heard him talk in a press conference, or even just watched him patrol the sidelines on television, he certainly has never come across as a man who is risk adverse or afraid of a challenge. The East St. Louis native and cancer survivor seems to radiate confidence and a killer instinct whenever he sets foot in the gym. On Tuesday night in Virginia, Coach Martin will have himself one of the biggest challenges he could expect to find in regular season major college basketball. And he couldn’t be happier to accept it.
Surely, when Coach Martin circled December 22nd on his calendar, he expected his Bears would be flying out to Virginia as a ranked team. Unfortunately, CAL’s nationally hyped, high-flying attack has weathered some turbulence through the first third of the season. Largely due to an inability to break down zone defenses with dependable outside shooting options, the Bears find themselves south of the top-25, without a victory against a ranked opponent.
Tuesday night in front of a nationally televised audience (ESPN2, 6pm) will be just the kind of resume building opportunity coach Martin is searching for at this point in the year. It will come against a top-5 team in Virginia. A team many are expecting to win the stacked ACC and have a good shot at reaching the Final Four in Houston. Vegas experts are expecting the home Cavaliers to win by a comfortable 12-point margin.
It should be interesting to see CAL play the role of underdog for the first time this season. At least on paper, the Bears have one of the most talented teams in the country and were granted a top 15 ranking to begin the year. But with losses to San Diego State and Richmond, as well as close calls against Wyoming, St. Mary’s and even the University of the Incarnate Word, CAL has been humbled early. Now with less than 12 weeks until Selection Sunday, it’s about time the Bears put the engine into high gear if they expect to do any sort of damage come March.
As mentioned, CAL’s woes have largely stemmed from a lack of shooting touch. For starters, freshman phenom Jaylen Brown has only managed to knock down nine 3-pointers during the first 11 games. Senior Tyrone Wallace leads the team in scoring with 16ppg, but has only made 60% of his free throws. As a whole, against a soft schedule, CAL has only shot 33% from three point land. By now, teams are consistently sitting back in zone defenses, forcing the Bears to slow down and prove their ability to knock down shots from distance.
On the bright side, Coach Martin’s team has proven they can get stops on defense and their offense has been spread out among many weapons, with all five starters routinely finishing in double figures. On top of that, CAL’s overall speed and athleticism has been spectacular to watch at times. The Bears will need to tap into this raw talent when they take the floor on Tuesday night.
In a somewhat quiet, methodical way, University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett has turned the Cavaliers into a basketball power. Traditionally an also-ran in the ACC, Bennett has lead UVA to back-to-back 30-win seasons in Charlottesville. This is an eye-popping accomplishment when you consider Bennett’s league schedule consists of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Louisville. Somehow, Bennett was able to guide his squad to a 16-2 record in the ACC last year, all without one McDonald’s All-American on his roster (CAL currently sports three).
Before moving east, Tony Bennett took over for his dad Dick Bennett at Washington State. Challenged with the task of recruiting and winning in Pullman, Bennett was still able to find success and was eventually courted by an ACC school. Fast forward seven years and Bennett is one of the hottest young coaches in basketball, making more than $2 million a year and challenging the likes of Krzyzewski, Boeheim, Pitino, and Williams year in and year out.
Bennett’s 2015-16 Cavaliers are extremely skilled and experienced, led primarily by senior guard Malcolm Brogdon and senior forward Anthony Gill. Brogdon, who goes by the nickname “Humble Moses” leads the team in scoring with 17-a-game while shooting above 40% from 3-point land.
Athletic, skilled and well coached, the Cavaliers will pose the toughest challenge for Coach Martin’s Bears so far this season, if not all year. Will this road test expose CAL as an over-hyped team who doesn’t quite know how to utilize its widespread talent? Or, perhaps the Bears will use the opportunity to show the Andy Katz’s and Joe Lundardi’s of the world that Berkeley hoops is deserving of some hype after all. One has to believe Coach Martin will have his team ready for the bright lights and the big challenge that awaits in ACC country.