It's been a while since Cal basketball had to face the burden of heightened expectations. The Bears have only won one conference championship since 1960, hadn't signed a five-star recruit since 2003 (Leon Powe) and last advanced past the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament when Tony Gonzalez (yes, the tight end) scored 23 points against Villanova to lead them to the Sweet 16 in 1997.
But expectations can change fast in college basketball, and they did for Cuonzo Martin. The only school in the country to sign two top 10 recruits in the class of 2015 wasn't Duke or Kentucky -- it was Cal. With one-and-done freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb joining a talented veteran core led by Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird, Martin's Bears were suddenly set up for a season with massive stakes, one that felt like an opening statement and a last chance at the same time.
As recently as a month ago, it looked like Cal might whiff on this golden opportunity. A Jan. 31 loss to Colorado dropped the team to 14-8 and 4-5 in the Pac-12. Wallace was out with a broken bone in his hand, Brown struggled to adjust to his role as the primary option and there was a real sense that the Bears could miss the NCAA Tournament.
So much for that. Cal is currently riding a seven-game winning streak, surging to second in the Pac-12 in the process. The Bears put the finishing touches on a perfect February by drubbing USC on Sunday night, a victory that locked in an 18-0 season at home. Wallace is back, Brown and Rabb are each thriving and the preseason hype touting Cal as one of the country's most entertaining teams now feels totally warranted.
There aren't many rosters in the country that can match Cal's combination of size and athleticism -- and it's manifested in a defense that's climbed to No. 14 in the country, according to KenPom. The only team with two top 10 recruits has become the only team with two potential lottery picks. Suddenly, Cal looks a matchup nightmare no one wants to see in March.
How has Cal finally realized its vast potential? You can point to three main reasons:
Tyrone Wallace is back and as good as ever
Wallace missed five games after breaking his hand in practice on Jan. 16. Since he's returned, Cal is 6-0 with those wins coming by an average of 14.5 points.
That isn't a coincidence. At 6'6 with a 6'9.5 wingspan, Wallace is among the biggest point guards in the country. He's a plus athlete, a developing playmaker and a bull going to the hoop. How many other college point guards can do this?
In case you missed it last night, Tyrone Wallace turned the corner and took flight! @T_Wa1l ✈️ ✈️ #TogetherWeAttack pic.twitter.com/93pkAzwSzZ— Yann Hufnagel (@yhufnagel) February 29, 2016
Wallace's scoring numbers have dropped slightly as a senior (from 17.1 points per game to 15.3), and his three-point shot remains a major hole in his game (just 27.1 percent). But Cal is winning right now because of size, athleticism and defense, and Wallace brings all three in droves.
Great senior point guards have a way of playing a huge role in March, and Cal has one of the best in the country.
Jaylen Brown is coming into his own
Brown entered college basketball looking like an NBA wing out of the box, at least physically. He's 6'7 with a 6'11 wingspan and is among the most athletic players in the country. It's easy to see the similarities between him and Andrew Wiggins, and so far their numbers are pretty comparable:
Wiggins had a nearly unprecedented amount of hype when he arrived at Kansas, but he was quickly exposed as a player who needed to (and still needs to) refine his game. Brown suffers from same problem even if the symptoms aren't identical. Brown's usage rate is sky-high (No. 1 in the Pac-12), he turns the ball over way too much (currently: 87 turnovers to 56 assists) and he's proven to be a poor outside shooter.
Still: this is a tremendously talented prospect and he's been great during Cal's winning streak. He scored 16 in a blowout win against then-No. 11 Oregon, put up 23 points against Washington and hung 18 points (on 3-of-7 shooting from deep!) against USC.
He's one of the best transition and semi-transition players in America. If the defense isn't settled, there's a good chance Jaylen Brown is making his way to the hoop for a dunk:
Brown isn't a perfect player yet, but he's already a very good one. It's starting to feel like he's a lock to be a top five draft pick come June.
Bird and Mathews are superstar role players
Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird could be go-to scorers on most teams -- at Cal, they're the fourth and fifth options. That's a vastly underrated part of what makes this team so dangerous.
Bird and Mathews aren't just talented, they're a perfect fit. With Wallace and Brown being total non-shooters on the perimeter and Rabb not even attempting a three all year, spacing is at a premium for Cal. That's what Bird and Mathews are here to provide.
Bird, a 6'6 junior wing, is on a tear lately, scoring 20 or more three times during this winning streak. He went 5-of-8 from deep vs. UCLA, 3-for-3 against Washington, 4-of-8 vs. Oregon State and 5-of-8 vs. Oregon. Mathews, a 6'3 junior, can catch fire just as quickly. He has seven games this season with at least four threes, including a 4-of-9 effort vs. USC.
Bird and Mathews might be under the radar right now, but they'll have the opportunity to make a name for themselves in March if Cal goes on a run.
After spending most of the season trying to find itself, it now feels like Martin has all the pieces in place. With this much talent, no one is going to take Cal lightly.