January 3, 2018 by Sam Dodge
Left is a Division I basketball team. Right is a Division II one. The team on the right beat the team on the left 96-72 on Nov. 22 in the Maui Invitational. (Andrew Lee)
BERKELEY, CALIF. – 11 months ago, UC Berkeley’s basketball foundation appeared strong.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin continued his steady improvement of the program, as an 18-6 record in early February portended a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Five seniors led by guard Jabari Bird – recently recalled from the Boston Celtics’ G League affiliate Maine Red Claws – carried a team in the thick of the conference title chase.
Fast forward to today to see that same foundation completely crumbled.
The Golden Bears collapsed down the stretch, including uninspired road losses to mediocre Utah and Colorado teams, and lost in the first round of the NIT to Cal State Bakersfield. Cuonzo Martin then fled to Columbia, Mo. to coach Missouri.
This year’s team is…bad.
USC heads to Haas Pavilion in Berkeley to play the beleaguered 7-7 Golden Bears, seeking to build off the momentum from last Sunday’s encouraging victory over Washington State.
If the Trojans thought they had matchup advantages over the visiting teams last week – Washington acquitted themselves well against UCLA despite blowing a 14-point second half lead – this UC Berkeley team should be the gift that keeps on giving.
The Golden Bears interchange hard-fought losses to solid teams with embarrassing blowouts to bad ones.
They lost to Kenpom No. 266 UC Riverside by eight, No. 221 Central Arkansas by 27 and Portland State by 25.
Division II Chaminade humiliated them by 24 in the final consolation game of the Maui Invitational.
They do enter Thursday night’s home tilt undefeated in Pac-12 play, besting rival Stanford 77-74 in Palo Alto. Couple that with another tight road win over San Diego State on Dec. 9, and there are flickers of life with this squad.
Trojans head man Andy Enfield showed the appropriate caution for the trip.
“They’re never easy,” he said. “Cal won big the other night, and anyone can win at home in the Pac-12.”
Wyking Jones, an assistant under Martin last year, helms this year’s incredibly young outfit.
Jones, oddly enough, dabbles in Hollywood, as well. This is a sampling of his filmography via IMDB.
Out of 351 teams, UC Berkeley ranks No. 287 in experience.
The two major usage guys to watch out for are junior guard Don Coleman and senior center Marcus Lee. They combine to eat up over half of the possessions, despite the former’s dismal shooting.
Coleman inefficiently scores 20 points a game, hitting only 38 percent of his shots and 30 percent of his threes. As the ball-handling guard, he also turns the ball over two and a half times a game, equaling his assist numbers.
Essentially, he carries the offensive load and the team pays for it.
The 6-foot-11 Lee transferred from Kentucky two years ago and became eligible this season. He averages 12.6 points and eight rebounds this season.
He’s a vintage John Calipari-type, crashing the offensive boards to score easy points. He carries a top-100 mark nationally in offensive rebounding and connects on 61 percent of his shots. He also is in the top-50 nationally in blocks.
Lee occasionally sees the floor simultaneously with Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-foot-1, 267-pound senior from Derby, England. He’s a risk-taking defender, ranking No. 17 nationally in blocks yet averaging five fouls per 40 minutes.
Despite the tandem of shot blockers, the Golden Bears are woeful defensively. They’re below average in field goal percentage allowed, turnovers forced and preventing offensive rebounds.
Lest we forget, they also let up nearly 100 points to a Division II team.
Helming the offense is freshman point guard Darius McNeill, who is by far the best shooter. He scores 13.4 points a game and hits 46 percent of his threes. Like Coleman, however, he coughs the ball up just as much as he assists.
Overall, the team turns the ball over on 21 percent of their possessions, good for No. 278 in the country.
Incoming four-star forward on ESPN Justice Sueing rounds out the starting lineup. He’s playing out of position as a stretch-four, as his wiry 6-foot-7, 209-pound frame betrays him on defense. Offensively, he chips in 12 points and five boards per contest, keeping big men honest by connecting on a third of his treys.
While there’s pieces to this team, the Trojans should roll.
Despite some poor shooting from deep the last two games, USC still has the No. 18 offense in the nation according to Kenpom. The typically sharp-shooting Men of Troy face an accommodating defense, and Wkying Jones’ team isn’t likely to repeat Washington’s torrid shooting day.
The only consistent strength for the hosts is Lee and Okoroh’s offensive rebounding.
USC will take all of its big men to the Bay Area, including embattled junior forward Chimezie Metu. There’s a rub, though.
USC chose to strip Chimezie Metu of his captaincy and suspend him for a half for his flagrant foul on Washington State’s Carter Skaggs.
The 6-foot-11 duo of Nik Rakocevic and Bennie Boatwright expect to protect the boards against Lee and Okoroh until Metu joins the team in the second stanza.
This game, and the one this Sunday night against Stanford, are two more opportunities to gain a head of steam heading into the meat of the conference slate.
The advantages are there. Jordan McLaughlin one-on-one with a struggling freshman. Elite shooters should have plenty of space. Even strength in height.
Will the Trojans execute accordingly, or remain inconsistent a la Princeton and Washington?
Tip-off is at 7:30 PST on Pac-12 Network.