This has been a particularly strong year for Pac-12 basketball. Oregon came out of sorta-nowhere and won the conference title, but below them, Utah has been excellent, as has Arizona. Colorado, Washington, and USC all should make the NCAA Tournament too, but the scariest team in the whole conference might be one of its least experienced. The California Golden Bears just wrapped up a perfect February, and their record has finally caught up with their immense talent level. They have Arizona again tonight, down in the desert, but win or lose, their freshmen-led team is the country’s hottest, and they couldn’t have timed their surge any better.
You can win with talented freshmen in college basketball. Syracuse did it with Carmelo Anthony; Kentucky did it with Anthony Davis. Those two players are, however, meteors, and you’ll get about one of these supertalents that comes along and destroys the tournament about once a decade (Davis even had the help of about 17 other lottery picks).
Neither small forward Jaylen Brown nor power forward Ivan Rabb are can’t miss superstars the way the previous two examples are, but they were both top-10 recruits coming out of high school and they are playing up to expectations. Of course, each newly minted Golden Bear didn’t exactly enter NCAA ball and start tearing up the competition. Cal struggled finding its rhythm early in the conference play season. Couple that with a heartbreaking close loss of a potential marquee win over Virginia, and it seemed like a typical Cal sports season of lost promises. Not so fast.
Since the Bears lost to Colorado at the end of January, Cuonzo Martin’s team has looked like one of the best defensive teams in the country. Opponents in February only reached 45% shooting once. Their athleticism and shotblocking cover lets them smother teams on the perimeter (a strategy that doesn’t really work in the NBA anymore, but for our purposes, is a fine way to go if you have the horses to pull it off) and Cal opponents have taken the sixth-fewest threes in the nation.
A lot of this starts with senior point guard Tyrone Wallace. He has a 6-foot-10-inch wingspan and can harry the living shit out of opposing ballhandlers. I don’t know about his viability as a starting point guard in the NBA right now, since he is not a shooter yet, but he’s big for an NBA point guard, and huge for a college one.
Offensively, Cal has relied on Brown to bully past would-be defenders all year. When he cuts to the hoop, his physical advantage is truly stark. He too can’t quite shoot very well, but he can bully just about anyone and get to the rim if you give him an inch and he’s improved as a ballhandler as the year’s progressed.
Rabb isn’t as obvious a NBA player as Brown, but he’s the type of springy, lanky four whose niche is widening at the next level. On this Cal team, he mostly posts people up, blocks shots, and occasionally gets to play in the high post, but he’s a very instinctual player with the build of slightly skinnier Chris Bosh.
Cal has all the ingredients of a team built for a legit tournament run: a lockdown defense that (as a matter of habit at this point) doesn’t allow easy shots; a star that can draw fouls easily; and a pair of shooters (Jordan Matthews and Jabari Bird) who are liable to get hot and go on a solo 12-0 run at any point.
They’ve fared rather well against elite teams this year too. Cal has beaten Oregon, Utah, and Arizona, and only narrowly lost to Virginia on the road. They’ve also lost a bunch, because that’s what young teams do. Cal’s not perfect, and they shouldn’t be the favorites or anything that dramatic. But they should terrify the daylights out of whoever gets them in March.