As part of its preview of the 2016 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, SI.com is taking a look at all 68 teams in the field. RPI and SOS data from realtimerpi.com. Adjusted offense and defense statistics are from kenpom.com and measure the number of points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, and the team’s national rank. All other advanced stats are also from kenpom.com (unless noted otherwise), and are through March 14.
Adjusted offensive/defensive efficiency: 111.3 (47th) /93.8 (15th)
Seed: South No. 4
Impact Player: Jaylen Brown, freshman, forward 15.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG
The Case For: The talent is evident, so the question is whether Cal coach Cuonzo Martin can hone it to get the Bears to their first Sweet 16 since 1997. Cal trots out five high-volume scorers (Brown, Ivan Rabb, Jordan Mathews, Jabari Bird and Tyrone Wallace) and arguably one of the most intimidating starting lineups in the country. Brown, who some think will be the No. 3 pick in the upcoming NBA draft, is one of the nation’s most explosive players who can end any scoring drought with a dunk. Fellow star freshman Rabb (12.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG) might be the nation’s most polished teenage player outside of LSU’s Ben Simmons. Rabb’s offensive footwork is already NBA-ready and is a prolific finisher around the rim. His eleven double-doubles led the Bears and he helped establish an interior scoring threat on a team that can rely heavily on perimeter shooting.
After an execrable start to conference play that saw him score just 11 total points in his first four Pac-12 games, Bird emerged as one of Cal’s most reliable perimeter players. Bird knocked down at least three three-pointers in five of the last 11 conference clashes and looks to be as reliable of a perimeter option as Mathews, who finished second in the Pac-12 with 86 three-pointers made. The Bears are a terror when locked in, it’s just a question of finding a rhythm.
The Case Against: While the Bears may attract many with their young talent, they don’t close games well and struggle at the free throw line—two qualities which often doom teams in March. The Bears led Virginia on the road by five points with under a minute remaining and Arizona on the road by eight with under 90 seconds remaining. They lost both games. They also finished last in the conference in free-throw percentage at 65.6%. While Mathews and Bird (each hovers around 80% from the stripe) have been dependable down the stretch, the rest of the Bears have been liable from the line in close contests.
Martin has turned Cal into a formidable defensive unit that should keep his team in virtually any game, but the Bears are often too reliant on the perimeter for scoring and have struggled with teams who zone them and have longer, more athletic guards. They are also hindered by two tough, if raw centers (Kameron Rooks, Kingsley Okoroh) who are decent interior defenders, but provide little offense when on the floor.
SI prediction: Beat No. 13 Hawaii in first round, beat No. 12 South Dakota State in second round, lose to No. 1 Kansas in Sweet 16.