Cal drops heartbreaker to UNLV

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Cal drops heartbreaker to UNLV

BERKELEY -- Less than two seconds were on the clock when the ball took flight with Cal clinging to a one-point lead.

"I saw it was going to be an air ball," said UNLV senior forward Quintrell Thomas, "so I just tried to go get it as fast as I could."

Indeed, Anthony Marshall's shot was short and an entire Haas Pavilion held its collective breath.

"I should have went out and got that rebound," said Cal junior forward Richard Solomon. "I was boxing out and I should have went for it. We have to be more physical on the defensive end. We have to get the ball out of the air."

Instead, Thomas plucked the ball and went up immediately, laying it on off the glass for the go-ahead basket…and Solomon was called for the foul. The air went out of the announced gathering of 8,724.

"I saw the guy was in his face so I assumed that if it was going anywhere, it was going short," Thomas added. "I was surprised I beat the…clock, though."

There was 1.2 seconds left to play and Thomas wisely missed the free throw, eating up half of one second by the time Cal rebounded the miss, so by the time the Golden Bears could inbound there was .7 of one second to play. Ballgame. After 13 ties and seven lead changes.

"Sometimes you've just got to escape, and that's what we came out here and did. Of course, it was a big one for us."

No. 21-ranked UNLV 76, Cal 75.

"Found a way," said Runnin' Rebels coach Dave Rice. "Sometimes, basketball just comes down to one play, period. We were fortunate, but at the same time we made our luck and we were at the right spot at the right time."

For UNLV (7-1), it was gut-check time, considering the Rebels lost preseason All-American junior forward Mike Moser to a dislocated right elbow in a scrum for a loose ball less than five minutes into the game.

Forward Anthony Bennett, who might be the best freshman in the country and who flashes 21-year-old glimpses of former UNLV Wooden Award winner Larry Johnson, stepped up with a double-double of 25 points and 13 rebounds in 35 minutes. His baseline dunk late in the game shook the rafters and harkened not only L.J. of old but a more recent vintage of Blake Griffin.

"He's pretty good, 25 and 13 speaks for itself," Solomon said. "We could have done a better job on him. He made a lot of plays by out-hustling us, and he was more physical."

Bennett was complimentary of Solomon was well after he tied a career high with 14 points and added eight rebounds. Solomon, though, missed all four of his free-throw attempts.

"He's real nice," Bennett said of Solomon. "He has nice post moves, has a great shot. He's a real nice player."

UNLV sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, meanwhile, added a career-high 22 points, including a pair of rally-stemming three-pointers.

For Cal (6-2), it was a learning experience. Had the Bears beaten the Rebels, Cal would have made a push toward the rankings.

Instead…

Cal was just 15 of 28 from the free-throw line and, at one point, was a backbreaking 3-14.

"We got to the line and didn't get anything out of it," said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. "That's hard psychologically. Free throws killed us. We just missed free throws and we can't afford to do it in a game like that."

Nor could they afford three fouls on leading scorer Allen Crabbe in the first half. Crabbe, who finished with a Cal-high 18 points, did not play the final 6:49 of the first half after picking up foul No. 3 on a flagrant 1 for throwing an elbow at Marshall's head.

The game was tied at 28-28 at the time and UNLV closed the first half on a 17-10 run with Crabbe on the bench.

"He flopped," Crabbe said. "I didn't even touch him. If I did it wasn't much. He came up into me and I tried to swing around and he was right there. I feel like it was a bad call but I can't do anything about it now."

Rather, Crabbe carried the Bears in the second half. His free throw with 38.9 seconds to go gave Cal a brief 73-72 lead.

Then came Bennett's monster dunk before junior guard Justin Cobbs drove to the hole, stopped in the key, fired up a shot that missed and was fouled by Marshall with 11.4 seconds to play.

Cobbs drained both and Cal had a fleeting lead. All of which set up the final, harried play with Marshall bringing the ball up court and shooting short from the key. Enter Thomas, who could not remember what play was actually called.

"We didn't run the play, that's for sure," said Thomas, who had all of four points, but six rebounds. "But it ended up working out fine."

At least, it did for UNLV.

"One of our Achilles' heel is giving up offensive rebounds," Montgomery said. "We're not reacting all the time. Defensively we got what we wanted. We got an air ball, in fact.

"Either we fell asleep or we were mismatched."

Said Crabbe: "It hurts because we had made a big defensive play and we were right there. There were so many other things that could have happened. It was a perfect day to show what we could do and it came down to one play."

It just went the other way.

New Cal coach Wyking Jones ready to prove critics wrong amid changes

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AP

New Cal coach Wyking Jones ready to prove critics wrong amid changes

Even the most passionate Cal fan might struggle to name a single player on the current basketball roster. The team's top five leading scorers from last season have all departed. Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird moved on to the NBA, Grant Mullins graduated, and both Charlie Moore and Kameron Rooks elected to transfer.

But perhaps the most significant change is on the sideline. Out is Cuonzo Martin, who agreed to a massive seven-year contract with Missouri, worth a reported $21 million. Replacing him is 44-year-old Wyking Jones, a longtime assistant coach, who spent the past two seasons as Martin's top aide in Berkeley.

Jones' promotion was met with heavy criticism from many in the media, both locally and nationally. Skeptics believe Cal settled for the cheap option, rather than the best option. But why can't both be true? There's no denying that salary played a factor in the hire - the athletic department's financial troubles have been well documented in recent years. But Jones impressed Athletic Director Mike Williams in other areas too, reportedly acing his job interview with a detailed plan for the program moving forward. And unlike the other candidates, Jones already has direct experience dealing with Cal's unique set of circumstances.

“It's not something that you can walk into and just get a really good grasp of,” Jones explained. “It's a learning curve that, if you walk into this situation for the first time, it would take you a tremendous amount of time. Knowing who to go to when you need things, who's in charge of this, who's in charge of that, just having a familiarity of how to really get things done around here.”

Jones also discovered the challenges of recruiting at a school like Cal, where not every athlete can qualify academically. While many coaches would view that as a negative, Jones chooses to embrace it.

“In my mind, that's what makes this place special,” he said. “It's the number one public institution in the world for a reason. Your recruiting pool shrinks quite a bit, but that's okay because typically what happens is if you get a kid who has a lot of discipline on and off the court, you're not going to run into troubles on the weekends when they're in the dorms. They're usually kids who have a lot of respect for the community and other students.”

From a coaching standpoint, Jones has unquestionably paid his dues in the world of college basketball. Prior to joining Cal as an assistant in 2015, he made stops at Louisville, New Mexico, Pepperdine, and Loyola Marymount, where he also played from 1991-95. Now, after nearly 15 years in collegiate coaching, Wyking Jones is a head coach.

“I think initially it's very exciting to have an opportunity to coach, have your own program at a storied program like Cal, to follow in the footsteps of some great coaches,” he said, smiling. “But now the smoke has cleared and it's time to get to work.”

That work has already begun. As previously mentioned, Jones will have to replace his top five scorers from a year ago, who accounted for nearly 56 points per game. The Bears will count on increased production from senior center Kingsley Okoroh and junior guard Don Coleman. They will also rely heavily on redshirt senior forward Marcus Lee, who sat out last season after transferring from Kentucky.

“It's an adjustment, for sure,” Jones admitted. “But you have 13 scholarships for a reason. It's just an opportunity for the guys who are still here to earn their scholarship. It's an opportunity for them to make a name for themselves and have an impact on this program.”

Under Cuonzo Martin, Cal established itself as one of the best defensive teams in the country. Last season, the Bears ranked 18th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 63.4 points per game. Jones hopes to continue that trend while also implementing a full-court pressure defense, similar to the one he coached at Louisville, which resulted in a national championship in 2013.

“It's a process,” he acknowledged. “In year one, hopefully we can be good at it. In year two, look to improve. In year three, hope to be great at it... It's a type of defense, when you're talking about pressing, it's reading all the other guys on the court. It's never scripted. It's being able to read when is the right time to go trap, when is the right time to go switch, when is the right time to bluff and stunt at a guy to slow him down. So there's a learning curve in it.”

Jones knows there will also be a learning curve for him personally as a head coach, especially with such a young and inexperienced roster. He expects his team to be overlooked and undervalued by much of the college basketball world, but that's just fine with him.

“I think a lot of people will probably guess that we won't be very good, and that's motivation right there. That's motivation for my staff, for our managers, for the support staff. It's motivation for everybody that's a part of this program to exceed those expectations. So I think that makes for an exciting season.”

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

INDIANAPOLIS -- More and more college coaches are putting their starters and even their stars on special teams as they seek to pile up every possible point in an era of pedal-to-the-metal shootouts and never-safe leads.

Fading fast are the days when superstars would catch their breath on the sideline when the kicker or punter trotted onto the field with the scrubs.

NFL teams love it.

Watching how players handle themselves as a blocker, gunner or returner provides a glimpse into a prospect's range, selflessness and versatility. It also delivers a sneak peek into how coachable he'll be, says Phil Savage, the SiriusXM NFL Radio host who spent two decades as an NFL coach, scout and executive and now oversees the Senior Bowl.

"I think because of the landscape of college football where scoring is at a premium, you've got to figure out a way to put points on the board not only on offense but through your special teams and defensively, as well," Savage says. "These coaches want to get these young players on the field as soon as possible, and a way to do that is utilize them on special teams."

These tapes provide a bonus to pro scouts.

"Now you have a vision of what that player might forecast to in the NFL as a young player and, specifically, as a rookie," Savage said.

Offensive and defensive coaches have a better idea of the types of players they're integrating into their schemes, and special teams coaches no longer get blank stares and blank canvases from the rookie class.

"Not only do you like the fact that they come in and have experience doing it, but you love the mentality if you're a coach and a decision maker that this guy isn't a diva, he's got no ego about it, he understands the team and puts team before self," says ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

"And he comes in with the mindset of 'What can I do to help the team and how can I contribute?' Those are the guys that seem to make it and last longer in the league because they're just willing to do different things and whatever it takes."

The prime example in this year's draft class is Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey , a "dynamic player than can do it all," according to Broncos GM John Elway.

McCaffrey gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in his college career and added almost 2,000 more as a returner.

"There's just a lot of big plays open in the return game," McCaffrey says. "You see special teams have such an impact on the game today. Any time I can have the ball in my hands, I feel like I can do something dangerous, and that's really why I love the return game."

Other highly touted draft prospects who polished their resumes on special teams include Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Washington wide receiver John Ross, and USC cornerback Adroee' Jackson, all of whom are projected as high selections.

McShay says "we're seeing more and more programs put an emphasis on special teams and having their key players contribute in one or more areas on special teams."

He pointed to Ohio State, where Urban Myers coaches special teams himself.

"It's a major emphasis there, and so you'll see some more guys typically lined up and contributing that are starters and stars," McShay says. "It's an honor to be on special teams."

Not a burden.

"It is not uncommon now to see people that are going to be picked in the first round having 100-plus special teams plays," suggests NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt.

He pointed to the University of Florida, where Gators defensive backs cover kickoffs as well as they do receivers.

"Everyone's always trying to get their best guys on the field," Brandt says.

That's a change from years past when coaches feared exposing their star players to the extra hits.

The added value benefits the players, whose multiple talents allow NFL general managers to address many needs.

"We're seeing more emphasis on it in college, and I think NFL teams love to see it because if just means you're getting a bit more for your buck," McShay says.

Top talents who bolstered their value by playing special teams:

CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY , RB, STANFORD: He shined at the combine working out with the running backs and was as impressive running routes. Asked if there was anything he couldn't do, the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey said then: "I can't sing."

JABRILL PEPPERS , S, MICHIGAN: He worked out with safeties and linebackers at the combine, where teams talked of him playing RB and WR in addition to returning kicks. "The bottom line is I'm a ballplayer and I'm a hell of a ballplayer," Peppers said.

JOHN ROSS , WR, WASHINGTON: He caught 81 passes with 17 TDs last season but actually posted more return yards (2,069) than scrimmage yards (1,924) in his college career.

ADOREE' JACKSON , CB, USC: One of the best special teams coverage players in the NCAA, Jackson also scored eight TDs on punt and kick returns in college. His punt return averages rose from 6.0 yards to 10.5 and 15.8.

JAMAL ADAMS , S, LSU: Another star in coverage, Adams' defensive mentality extends to special teams. "I love being on the field and just playing football," said Adams, whose father, George, was a first-round pick by the Giants in 1985.

ALVIN KAMARA , RB, TENNESSEE: In a deep running back group, Kamara separates himself with his special teams acumen. "A lot of teams have been bringing up special teams," Kamara said.

DESMOND KING , CB, IOWA: He had eight interceptions as a junior and three as a senior. "I had a really good special teams season," King said. "Not being targeted as much, I still went out there and competed the best I could and was still making plays."

CHRIS WORMLEY , DE, MICHIGAN: Wormley touts playing for Jim Harbaugh as one of his attributes. "Coach Harbaugh came in and ran our program like an NFL program, like he had with the 49ers," said Wormley, who blocked three kicks his senior season.

ZAY JONES , WR, EAST CAROLINA: Like McCaffrey, he has good NFL bloodlines (son of Robert Jones, brother of Cayleb Jones). He caught 158 passes as a senior, but spent his first two seasons in college also making his mark as a returner.