Cal: De­spite lack of height, Bears look to im­prove

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - SPORTING GREEN - By Rusty Sim­mons Rusty Sim­mons is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: rsim­mons@sfchron­i­cle. com Twit­ter: @Rusty_SFChron

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.”

Paul Chinn / The Chron­i­cle

Cal bas­ket­ball coach Wyk­ing Jones re­turns for his sec­ond sea­son, but his squad will have less size this time around.

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