To figure out how Cal assembled what might be college basketball's most entertaining team, you need to jump back two years and about 2,400 miles. It starts with Cuonzo Martin, then head coach at Tennessee, struggling to gain support from a fan base that still wasn't over the dismissal of Bruce Pearl. In his final season with the Vols, Martin dealt with everything from boosters cutting off his access to private planes on the recruiting trail to more than 40,000 fans signing a petition to bring back Pearl, who was in the final year of the show-cause penalty that got him fired.
All the while, Martin led Tennessee to an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, where it beat Iowa in the play-in game and went all the way to the Sweet 16 before falling to Michigan by two. When it was over, Martin announced he was going to Cal and none of his former players begrudged him for it.
If Martin's first season in Berkeley was about acclimating himself to a new program in a completely different part of the country, his second season is about showing Tennessee what it missed out on. By adding two consensus top-10 recruits to an already talented group of returning starters, Martin is well on his way to doing just that.
Let's start with who's back for Cal, which begins with lead guard Tyrone Wallace. Wallace could have turned pro after being named first-team all-conference as a junior, but he returned to fine tune his shooting mechanics. Wallace has great size for a point guard at 6'5 with a 6'9.5 wingspan and showcased tremendous scoring instincts last year, averaging more than 17 points per game. If his three-point stroke (31.8 percent last year) and free throw shooting (60.6 percent) improve, he could be one of the better point guards in the country.
Jordan Mathews is a nice complement to Wallace in the backcourt. He lacks ideal size at 6'3, but he's a 44 percent three-point shooter. On the wing, Jabari Bird has all the tools to finally live up to his billing as a five-star recruit in his junior year. That trio alone would be enough to get Cal fans excited, but it's the presence of Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb that makes this a potentially special season for the Bears.
Rabb, a springy 6'11 lefty from Oakland, was the first to commit. Brown followed a month later after paying his own way to visit Cal since they weren't one of his five official visits. That made Martin the only man in the country to sign two top-10 prospects, according to ESPN.
Now Cal has a potential five-man group that's big and athletic, has shooting on the wings and might boast two NBA lottery picks. It's up to Martin to figure out how to optimize all this talent. If he can do it, Cal might be the most watchable team in the country.
Because Brown is more of a natural wing and Rabb has the frame of a power forward rather than a center, there will be a temptation for Martin to use a true center like Kingsley Okoroh or Kameron Rooks in most lineups. That's fine for stretches. But when Cal really wants to run teams off the floor, all it needs to do is slide the freshman up a position and dare anyone to match their athleticism.
Brown, ranked the No. 4 player in the class of 2015, is a terrific prospect. He's an elite athlete with NBA size for a wing at 6'7, 225 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan. He's also pretty raw at this point, which is understandable for a player who has always been able to get away with being bigger and faster than everyone. His adjustment to the college game, whether he's at the three or the four, will be fascinating to watch.
The important thing is that Brown has all the tools to be great player. That's why he's currently projected as a top-five pick after his freshman year at Cal. There will be concerns about his shooting and ball handling, but if he shows a willingness to defend and a good feel for the game, he's going to be a very rich man nine months from now.
Rabb is similarly gifted. The No. 8 player in the class of 2015 needs to add strength to his 6'11, 220-pound frame, but his long arms (7'2 wingspan) and developing shooting stroke give him the potential to be Cal's second lottery pick. You simply can't teach a player to get off the ground as quickly as Rabb can, and that should lead to plenty of SportsCenter highlights this season.
It's no secret that playing fast has been a big picture trend at every level of basketball in recent years, and Cal is uniquely suited this season to crank up the pace. Martin's three Tennessee teams never finished better than No. 194 in pace, but Cal played slightly faster last year, finishing No. 108 in adjusted tempo according to KenPom.
Given that Martin might have three, even four first-round picks in the starting lineup if Bird enjoys a breakout campaign, it would make sense for Cal to play like an NBA team. Make the opposition defend you, and not the other way around. With all the talent on this year's roster, Martin will have the opportunity to dictate the terms of every game his team plays.
Cal is going to be at its best in the open floor, but it's going to need to force turnovers or run outs to get there. Can they do it? Last year's team had some trouble there.
Cal finished No. 348 in takeaway percentage and No. 344 in steal percentage last year. The defense wasn't bad as a whole (No. 80 overall) but there's certainly lots of room for improvement this year.
Also, as easy as it is to talk about playing Rabb at center and Brown at power forward from afar, these transitions aren't always so easy for adults, let alone 18-year-olds. Just look at Paul George's aversion to power forward with the Pacers. Just because the Warriors won an NBA title starting 6'7 Draymond Green at center doesn't mean everyone is capable of doing it.
Cal is unquestionably loaded with talent, but this roster will need to take pride in being a great defensive team if it's going to enjoy a long run in the NCAA Tournament. The potential is there, but it's not a sure bet.