With his team’s postseason hopes – and his young program’s reputation — possibly at stake, Cuonzo Martin delivered his best week as coach at Cal.
The Bears were coming off three straight road defeats and, at 2-3 in the Pac-12 were mired in the lower division of the standings. All-Pac-12 point guard Tyrone Wallace was on the shelf with a broken hand. Arizona was coming to town.
Expected to challenge for the Pac-12 title and make noise in the postseason, Cal needed a big week. A loss or two and everything could steamroll in the wrong direction. Not just the Bears’ NCAA tournament prospects, but the way they are viewed by recruits and NBA scouts – both of whom were well-represented at Haas Pavilion on Saturday.
The Bears won twice, including a 74-73 victory over Arizona that lifts them within a game of first place, albeit as part of a six-way tie for third.
Here’s how Martin helped make it happen:
— With leading scorer and lone senior Wallace sidelined, Martin gave junior backup Sam Singer the structure to operate effectively at the point. The Bears worked to exploit their size advantage against Arizona State and Singer responded with eight first-half assists that set a good tone.
— Even when 7-footers Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks inevitably got into early foul trouble against Arizona’s talented frontcourt, Martin kept one of them in the game most of the rest of the way, showing confidence they could stay on the floor and be effective.
— To keep a big lineup on the floor, he moved sharpshooter Jordan Mathews to the sixth-man role, knowing the tough-minded junior would not be bothered by it. Mathews responded with a season-high 28 points, including six 3-pointers, against Arizona.
— After playing seldom-used Brandon Chauca as Singer’s backup vs. ASU, Martin made a bold move and went to freshman forward Jaylen Brown in that role vs. Arizona. The 6-foot-7 Brown excelled, dishing a career-best seven assists to give Singer rest and provide a different look for the Wildcats.
Cal climbed to No. 38, respectively, in the RPI computer Monday morning after its weekend home sweep. The Bears (13-0) remain perfect at home.
Now they hit the road again, and we’ll begin to find out if the Bears can continue their climb up the Pac-12 ladder.
Cal’s wins over the Arizona schools followed an 0-for-2 trip to Oregon which dropped the Bears’ record outside Berkeley to 1-6. They take an 0-3 conference road record to Utah on Wednesday and Colorado on Sunday.
Ivan Rabb is the only Pac-12 player among 10 midseason candidates for the Waymon Tisdale Award, given to the nation’s top freshman. The Oakland native is averaging 12.6 points and 8.4 rebounds and shooting 64.2 percent.