Cal: Despite lack of height, Bears look to improve
Give the Cal men’s basketball players this much: At least they’re confident.
“Everybody can score. Everybody can shoot. Why wouldn’t we be better than last season?” sophomore guard Darius McNeill said. “I can’t wait to show everybody.”
There’s little doubt that the Bears will improve on last season, but it remains to be seen just how much better they’ll be than a squad that lost 17 of its final 18 games and got beat by an average of 9.9 points per game.
Cal lost three key contributors from a team that went 8-24 (.250), second-worst in school history (the 1978-79 team went 6-21, .222). Leading scorer Don Coleman (14.2 points per game) transferred to South Alabama, and big men Marcus Lee and Kingsley Okoroh graduated.
Without the 7-foot-1 Okoroh and 6-11 Lee, the Bears have only one player taller than 6-8 and one rotation player heavier than 240 pounds.
“We’re not the biggest team, so we’re going to have to show a tremendous amount of toughness,” second-year head coach Wyking Jones said. “That’s going to have to be our identity. Toughness is going to have to be something that we can hang our hats on.”
Most of the center minutes will be spread between freshmen Andre Kelly (6-8, 260) and Connor Vanover (7-3,
225), with sophomore stretch-4 Grant Anticevich (6-8, 240) occasionally giving the big men a rest.
Kelly is “graceful for such a big guy. As time goes along, you’ll start to see that he’s going to be a major problem for people to deal with it,” Jones said. Vanover “can really, really shoot the ball. When he misses, we’re all surprised.”
The Bears could struggle to rebound and defend opponents’ post players, but they should have better depth and more versatility than last season.
In its exhibition game against Cal State East Bay on Tuesday, Cal had eight players log at least 12 minutes, and that was without sophomore wing Juhwan HarrisDyson, who is day-to-day with a hand injury, and junior forward Roman Davis, who is working to get an eligibility waiver because of academic issues.
Those two would give the Bears five rotation players in the 6-5 to 6-7 range, each with the ability to switch from
defending shooting guards to power forwards. That group includes the team’s best player, Justice Sueing, who has committed himself to defense after averaging 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds as a freshman.
Jones said the team has a long way to go defensively, but he’s pleased with the offensive improvement it has shown in practice. Last season Cal averaged 77.6 points per game (tied for 305th out of 351 teams in the nation) on 40.6 percent shooting (T-334th) and 9.8 assists (T-347th).
The return to the Bay Area of Boise State transfer Paris Austin (Bishop O’Dowd-Oakland) should boost those numbers, and freshman wings Matt Bradley and Jacobi Gordon appear ready to contribute on that end of the court.
Austin is a natural point guard who can orchestrate an offense and spends time studying when and where his teammates like to catch passes.
“Having Paris out there, running the show, makes everyone feel very comfortable,” Jones said.
Austin had eight assists in Cal’s 20-point exhibition victory, often dishing in transition to Bradley, who scored a team-leading 18 points, and finding open jumpers for Gordon, who had 11 points in 14 minutes working his way back from a torn Achilles.
With Austin getting the majority of the squad’s minutes at point guard, McNeill can move to his natural position at shooting guard. The lefty from Houston did an admirable job in a tough spot last season, averaging 11.3 points and dishing out a team-best 70 assists as the primary point guard, but he’s excited to play beside Austin.
“Sometimes I just get caught watching him do what he does,” McNeill said. “He just frees me up. He gets into the paint, and he can attack or dish out to me for an easy three.
“He just makes my game and my life easier.”
Cal basketball coach Wyking Jones returns for his second season, but his squad will have less size this time around.