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Shots: shots, shots — shots, shots

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NOVEMBER 03, 2016

You know how when you say a word over and over again, it starts to lose its meaning?

Words are just sounds, after all. Take “shots,” for example. After, like, the 10th time, isn’t that word, like any other, just a guttural utterance? Once you’re just saying it for the sake of saying it, does it mean anything at all?

Well, ask Cuonzo Martin.

The Cal men’s basketball team will soon enough tip off its 2016 campaign, and on the eve of its preseason exhibition match against California Baptist (who?), the head coach whose far-and-away biggest issue last year was finding a way to consistently put the ball into the basket still has many more questions than answers as to how the hell his team will be doing that this coming season.

He claims that one of his stagnant offense’s saving graces will be the spacing provided by not only semi-proven Jabari Bird, but also incoming undersized Columbia transfer Grant Mullins and way-more-undersized true freshman Charlie Moore. Oh, and Stephen Domingo. Perfect.

What seems much more likely to help Cal stay offensively afloat this year will be the presumed exponential growth of its new face, Ivan Rabb. After rocking a hyper-efficient 24.2 PER last year with a 124.8 offensive rating, fortified by 12.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game on 61.5 percent shooting while playing in an offense that was (poorly) designed to get certain players more involved than others, the sophomore has returned to Cal for another year (why?) and has collected a fair amount of buzz heading into the season — recently being nominated an AP preseason All-American.

But the dude can’t do it alone.

Martin’s in, admittedly, a tough spot. His team’s Achilles heel last year was the lack of even two good three-point shooters in most of its lineups, and while his roster has certainly grown in that category, his best player is still a decidedly interior threat. Now sure, Rabb has apparently been working on his outside game this summer in anticipation of his inevitable selection in the NBA Draft, but do the Bears even really want him out there, learning a new area of the floor after he’s shown such a natural brilliance in another?

Small ball is super fun and sexy, but if Jaylen Brown slicing inside and kicking out to Jordan Mathews or Bird wasn’t working last year, why would it work if you replaced two out of three of those players with ones that are worse?

Speaking of Brown: He’s gone. And the good news for the Bears is that he took a lot of the spotlight, and national expectation, with him. After the huge signings of Rabb and Brown in 2015, Cal was ranked No. 13 in the NCAA preseason top 25 last summer. You won’t hear it much, but those Bears were just stacked enough to lose by 11 in the first round of March Madness and have now lost the third overall pick in the NBA Draft. Oof.

So expectations are a bit too high and a bit too low, depending on how you look at it. A media preseason prediction of fourth in the Pac-12 seems pretty abysmal for a team that went 23-11 last year and a perfect 18-0 at home, until you consider that it lost its best player from that season. But nearly getting ranked in the preseason top 25 (it’s at 29 currently) seems a touch ambitious for a Cal team that’s an enigma aside from its low post stalwart.

With so much confusion heading into the season, though, one thing remains clear: The defense will be good. Martin’s squad was the conference leader in points allowed per game in 2015, and his track record indicates that the Bears will find stops when they need to. But will they find baskets?

I’m not sure what the plan is on offense. Do you throw Charlie Moore into the starting unit next to Bird and Domingo, height and defense be damned, and give Rabb more space to work inside? Or do you throw all your sharpshooters onto the second unit and watch the bench darken the skies with threes?

Shooting was the issue last year and may very well continue to be this time around. But the Bears can’t expect to just start shooting more and more and more and expect their offense to magically not be crappy anymore.

Because, as we’ve talked about before, aimless repetition just ends up being, well, aimless.

Austin Isaacsohn covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @AustinIsaacsohn.
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NOVEMBER 03, 2016