BERKELEY – How will Cal’s men’s basketball team adjust to Jabari Bird’s return to the lineup? Easy, the same way it adjusted when he left the lineup.
Bird, the Bears’ talented freshman, is expected to make his return to the court from a sprained ankle tonight when Cal hosts Washington at Haas Pavilion at 8 p.m. The Bears are on a roll despite the absence of Bird and fellow wing Ricky Kreklow, and will have to find a way to maintain their momentum while infusing their presence back into the playing rotation. Kreklow is expected back in another week or two after breaking his hand.
“That’s one of the things we did when they were out – we had to adapt and guys had to step up,” junior forward David Kravish said. “Some guys who weren’t starting are picking up minutes. It shows the depth of our team and the strength of our team. Even when we lose two of our significant players, we can come out and win three straight road games in a really solid conference.”
Indeed, the Bears have forged an impressive start to the Pac-12 season despite missing two key players. Cal began the conference slate with three straight road games and has won all three – at Stanford, at No. 17 Oregon and at Oregon State.
Cal has received pivotal contributions from players that have been forced to assume bigger roles because of the depleted lineup. Freshman guard Jordan Mathews poured in 32 points in last week’s win over the Ducks. Senior Jeff Powers has been a stabilizing force in the backcourt and has nailed a handful of clutch perimeter shots. Forward Christian Behrens has been a force on the glass off the bench.
It’s all added up to a team playing with chemistry, cohesiveness and belief. The tricky part now is re-introducing new elements to the winning formula and sustaining it.
“We just have to keep doing what we are doing,” Kravish said. “Every day in practice, we just have to keep bringing the intensity. This group has really gelled together really well. It’s not just on the court. Off the court, we’re hanging out together. Everyone is pretty close. It’s a good group of guys. Everyone really enjoys each other, so that really helps with our team chemistry.”
Said Mathews: “We’ll just incorporate them back in and nothing is really going to change.”
Cal coach Mike Montgomery said Bird will have to “earn his way back into this thing.” The freshman is averaging 11.3 points per game but has missed the past four contests because of the ankle injury.
“We’ve won four games. We’ve got a pretty good little chemistry,” Montgomery said. “I don’t think there’s any question talent-wise he’s a real plus for us. But Jeff has kind of stepped to the forefront a little bit. He certainly deserves a chance. I would expect we’ll start to see how he reacts to game intensity because certainly conference games are more probably more intense to what he’s experienced to this point.”
With or without Bird and Kreklow, the Bears are starting to make believers out of a lot of people. The three road wins to begin the conference season is a feat the Bears hadn’t accomplished since 1957. Cal is 12-4, and in only one of those losses was it able to field a completely healthy team. All four defeats have come away from Haas Pavilion, and three of them have been to teams ranked or receiving votes in the Associated Press top 25.
“I just think we’re starting to show what we are capable of,” Kravish said. “From the beginning, I knew this team had a really high ceiling. I think we can really do some good things and really take this program pretty far.”