BERKELEY — Wyking Jones faces a daunting task in his first season coaching California, where he’ll be guiding an inexperienced roster that lost its star power.
Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird are gone to the pros, each second-round NBA draft picks. Guard Charlie Moore transferred to Kansas. Only one starter returns, center Kingsley Okoroh.
“Just relying heavily on my returners. They’ve been through the fire before, they’ve played in games,” Jones said. “They know what it’s like. The preparation, more than anything, they’re very familiar with that process.”
Jones also worked as an assistant at Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, New Mexico and Louisville, where during four seasons under Rick Pitino he helped the Cardinals win the national title in 2013 and make another trip to the Final Four.
“We’re very young, six freshmen, but every day they’re giving us the effort, they’re giving us the energy,” Jones said. “I feel like they’re picking up what we’re teaching them at a rapid pace. We’re putting a lot in and throwing a lot at them right now. But I feel good about their progress and how well they’re picking things up.”
Cal’s returning players do have familiarity with Jones. He spent two seasons on the staff of Cuonzo Martin, who left to become Missouri coach.
“For me it’s been an easy transition, he’s been here two years,” said Okoroh, who will be counted upon to take on a greater role with Rabb and Bird gone. “They are two big pieces.”
The short-handed Golden Bears lost in the first round of the NIT at home to Cal State Bakersfield, finishing a 21-13 season that included a fifth-place showing in the Pac-12. Martin was 62-39 overall, 29-25 in conference.
Here are some things to watch for with Cal, picked to place 11th in the Pac-12 ahead of Washington State:
KEY NEW FACE
Marcus Lee is from the East Bay suburb of Antioch and transferred back to the Bay Area for his senior campaign from Kentucky, sitting out last season.
“Let’s be honest, I’ve had a countdown since I got on campus,” Lee said.
A 6-foot-9 forward, Lee averaged 6.9 points and 6.0 rebounds in his final Kentucky season during 2015-16. His 68 percent shooting marked a single-season school record.
“He’s raring to go, he’s ready to go,” Okoroh said.
Boise State transfer Paris Austin also comes home to Northern California but must sit out this season.
“Those guys are the catalysts,” Jones said. “Once the lights come on and it’s time to play the game, we’ll see how they respond.”
Jones is trying to instill a commitment to the defensive end that he hopes will lead to better chances on offense for his young group. In practice, it’s about making the stop.
“Our guys are really dedicating themselves to defense to the point where they really enjoy playing defense, and that’s what it’s all about for me,” he said.
The Bears will find out in a hurry where they stand against top competition. They go to the Maui Invitational and face Wichita State on Nov. 20, then host West Coast Conference power Saint Mary’s on Dec. 2.