Back in November, after his Cal basketball team lost a pair of games in Las Vegas, Cuonzo Martin did what college coaches often do at that early juncture of the season: He lied. Maybe not overtly, but he admits now that he glossed up his postgame comments, largely because he was coaching a young team with only one senior starter and he didn't want to pile on. Or at least, he didn't want to pile on in public.
"But you saw us back then," he said to a reporter on Thursday night. "We were a soft team. We didn't compete. We were a team that needed a lot of work."
That was true of this Cal team for much of the season: The Bears were strong at home and not nearly as good on the road, where they were erratic and inconsistent and given to the kinds of defensive lapses that make Martin apoplectic. And if you listened to Martin speak after the Bears' 75-63 victory over UCLA at Berkeley's Haas Pavilion on Thursday, you heard him proclaim that this is still a team in need of humbling, which Martin promised to do during film study over the weekend.
That kind of talk is to be expected, since Martin is not exactly given to effusiveness. Whether overtly or not, he appears to have inherited the intimidating countenance of his mentor Gene Keady, who coached him when he played at Purdue back in the 1990s. But even Martin seems aware of the fact that something may be happening in Berkeley, something that has the potential to propel the Bears into a wide-open NCAA tournament with as good a shot as anyone of making a run.
This is a program that hasn't made a run to the Elite Eight since 1960—back when Pete Newell, whose name now graces the court at Haas Pavilion, led the Bears to back-to-back NCAA championship games—and while it's premature to proclaim it will happen this year, the pieces at least appear to be falling into place. ESPN's Joe Lunardi had the Bears slotted in as a seven-seed heading into last night's game, and they were 25th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings and 19th in the RPI rankings; wherever they wind up, they may very well present the kind of challenge that no high seed wants to deal with.
Back at the beginning of this month, the Bears stood at 14-8 and 3-5 in the Pac-12, firmly ensconced on the bubble despite having a pair of potential NBA Draft lottery picks on their roster. But now they've won six straight, and if they beat USC on Sunday evening, they'll finish the season with an unblemished 18-0 record at their home arena, which sold out on Thursday night.
Cal leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense, and leads the entire country in two-point field goal percentage defense. If they Bears sweep those final three Pac-12 games, they have a shot at winning the conference's regular-season championship. They are becoming the kind of team that presents multiple challenges, the kind of team that can defend end-to-end, the kind of team with a pair of three-point threats to go along with 6-foot-7 freshman Jaylen Brown, a ferocious scorer out of Atlanta who was the fourth-ranked high school prospect in the country and is almost certainly headed to the NBA next season.
On Thursday, the Bears largely smothered UCLA's best shooters, holding the Bruins to 40.6 percent from the floor and 2-of-9 from three-point range. On offense, the team freed up Brown—apparently motivated by a discursive pregame talk with ESPN color commentator and tie-dyed American treasure Bill Walton—to drive hard to the basket, and when the Bruins' zone defense collapsed, they worked the ball deftly on the perimeter. One of the Bears' former McDonald's All-Americans, junior forward Jabari Bird, hit 5-of-8 three-point shots, finished with a game-high 20 points, and heads into the weekend on a Curry-esque tear, having made 20 of his last 33 3-point shots.
That's the kind of outside shooting Cal had been lacking for much of the season, and it opened up virtually everything else on offense. Bears' point guard Tyrone Wallace, a do-it-all 6'5 playmaker who is the only senior on the team that sees significant playing time, had one of his best games of the season, finishing with 14 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. It's the kind of stat line that Martin said afterward would "have him playing professional basketball for a long time." Cal also has an imposing front line that includes a pair of 7-footers, Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh, alongside likely NBA Draft Lottery selection Ivan Rabb, a long-limbed 6-foot-11 power forward and McDonald's All-American from Oakland who helped recruit Brown to the program after he committed to Cal in the offseason.
"I think we're starting to hit our stride going into March," Bird said.
Much of that is no doubt due to Martin, who surprised many people by making the jump from Tennessee to Cal after a Sweet Sixteen run a couple of years back. His teams tend to improve late in the season, and this team, at least at the moment, appears to have found itself. The defensive cues Martin used to shout at them in the huddle during time-outs, they now shout out to each other—to rotate to the corner and defend the three-point shot, to get back on defense, to play with the sort of relentless defensive energy that Martin brought to the floor at Purdue.
"I'm not necessarily yelling at a player," Martin said. "I'm like a sixth man, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. We can't have breakdowns there … If you can defend, you're capable of having a tremendous amount of success."
It's too early to say whether all this is enough to propel Cal on the sort of run that Newell's teams once enjoyed. But it would appear much of the work this team needed back in November—the work Martin was reluctant to mention publicly—has been accomplished. "I think it's just the growth of a team," Martin said. "The biggest thing for me as a coach is just seeing a player get better. And seeing these guys get better, that's good for me as a coach."