The energy surrounding the Cal Men’s basketball program these days is unlike any Bears fans have seen in a minute. There is an unmistakable air of confidence and focus that permeates through the coaches and the team. And why not? After a respectable 18-15 campaign last season—the first with coach Cuonzo Martin—he and his staff pulled off the best recruiting hall in the program’s history, landing top-10 players Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, as well as SoCal forward Roman Davis (who it was just announced will sit out this season as a redshirt). Add them to a trio of top-notch returning talent in four-year senior Tyrone Wallace, former McDonald’s All-American Jabari Bird and the much-improved 2-guard Jordan Matthews, and the Cal faithful have a reason to be excited.

Very excited.

The addition of Oakland native Rabb (or Ive, as his teammates call him) and Brown as the catalysts of a top-5 recruiting class immediately catapulted Cal onto the radar of even the most pedestrian college hoops fan, as well as into the top 15 of most pre-season polls and lists—official and unofficial.

Both Jaylen and Ivan were recruited by Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA—traditional powerhouse schools—but they chose Cal for different but equally important reasons.

“A lot of people from the inner city don’t get the opportunity [to come to Cal], so for me it was just another opportunity to prove [people] wrong that I could make it here, just like I made it at [Bishop] O’Dowd, [when] they said I wasn’t intelligent enough,” Rabb says.

“For me it was just getting away from home and experiencing something different,” Brown says. “Twenty years from now I want to be able to tell my kids or grandkids what I did when I was 18 years old in Northern California other than just being at home and staying in my area for the rest of my life.”

The irony of all the pre-season hype attached to the Cal program is that the two guys who are largely responsible for generating it couldn’t care less about the premature accolades.

“All those expectations are cool, but we still have to play basketball,” Brown says. “I’m appreciative of that and we’re very blessed to be considered at such a level, but at the same time I can’t pay attention to that.”

Jaylen’s fellow team member and roommate Rabb agrees wholeheartedly: “It doesn’t matter, I think the rankings are more for the fan base, to get them excited and get more attention to the program, but at the end of the day we have to win games.”

After spending any amount of time with Jaylen and Ivan, it’s apparent that, despite being from opposite ends of the country, they agree on a lot. The two well-mannered, laid back stars arrived on Cal’s campus early in the summer and have been tight ever since. So much so that Rabb’s mom has become the impromptu team mother, cooking dinners for both guys and helping out with laundry.

Although Jaylen had a slightly higher national profile coming out of Wheeler HS in Marietta, GA—also the alma mater of the last Cal player with this much hype, Shareef Abdur-Rahim—being that they are playing in Ivan’s backyard, Brown often jokes that he acts as his roomie’s security when they are out and the photo and autograph requests get to be too much. With the drive, athleticism, work ethic and talent that both of these guys possess, sooner rather than later, they’ll both be taking fan selfies and signing autographs from Berkeley to Brooklyn—if the team wins as much as pundits expect them to.

In a year that many thought would be a down one for the Pac-12, the Cal Bears should do a lot of winning. They have the ideal balance of youth, experience, size and depth—something that has not been the case in recent years. Cal goes five-to-six deep in the backcourt with Jabari Bird, Sam Singer, Georgetown transfer Stephen Domingo and Roger Moute a Bidias expected to get minutes behind starters Wallace, Matthews and Brown.

Despite the plethora of talent, everything starts with returning point guard Tyrone Wallace. Coaches selected Wallace as First-Team All-Pac-12 after his standout junior season; he was also a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award. Wallace sets the tempo on the floor at all times; he knows the system, so he’s always vocal, whether he’s praising teammates or correcting them when they’re in the wrong spot. As the only scholarship senior on the team, Wallace is also a guy whom Coach Martin trusts. The second-year general allows Wallace to make decisions that most coaches wouldn’t allow, from what days to take off to fun stuff like what shoes to wear in a game.

Cal’s upperclassmen are quick to give credit to former head coach Mike Montgomery’s regime, but it is clear that the example Coach Martin has brought to Berkeley is something that his players respect. The healthy balance of competition and camaraderie among the team is a good indication. On non-game days, Martin will have players work out in the morning, followed by a two-and-a-half hour intense game-situation practice. After, the team sticks around to run shooting drills.

In the midst of the killer practices, the team also has a lot of fun. There aren’t many major college head coaches who can rap word for word with 1990s Snoop Dogg records, but that is exactly what you’ll hear at workouts or during stretches in practice. Everything from old-school jams to Kevin Gates (players say that Martin loves the Louisiana rapper’s “I Don’t Get Tired”) to Shy Glizzy gets rotation. At only 44 years old, Martin is old enough to have lived but young enough to relate, as is his staff.

The way that Martin leads while also giving his team freedom is part of the reason he and his staff have completely changed the culture around the program in such a short time.

“It can’t be a dictatorship in this relationship because in order for those guys to grow, I have to let them make decisions,” says Martin. Over the summer, the team went on a trip to Australia to play exhibition games against pro competition and even though they were nearly 8,000 miles from campus, Coach didn’t give them a curfew.

College hoop fans of a certain age should remember Martin from his days as a lock-down defender and sharpshooter under Gene Keady at Purdue. He and eventual No. 1 pick Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson wreaked havoc on the Big Ten, winning back-to-back conference titles in ’94 and ’95 on top of an Elite Eight appearance.

Multiple injuries would cut short Martin’s playing career, but he quickly found another calling in the game when a former Purdue coach hired him as an assistant in 2000. A promising stint at Missouri State as a head coach would lead to a less than ideal time at Tennessee, but for the man of faith who made it out of East St. Louis and beat cancer in his 20s, the debacle in Knoxville was just another hurdle to overcome.

As a lifelong Midwest guy, Martin never imagined coaching on the West Coast, but it has suited him well, partially because he brought a lot of home with him to the Bay Area. Martin’s Associate Coach, Assistant Director of Operations and Strength and Conditioning Coach all worked with or played for him at some point. This tight-knit unit exudes family, a word that is used multiple times when Martin, his staff and the players describe the bond they share.

“Everybody uses that word family, but I think family is displayed over time,” Martin says. “We don’t just talk about it, we try to live that, and that’s who we are, it’s a lifestyle, it’s a culture. The relationships, the friendships, the respect we have for our players, not just as basketball players, but as young men, as well as students.”

Whether Cal’s freshmen take the one-and-done route or they stick around the school for a couple more years, it’s clear they understand the importance of this season and the ramifications it has on the future of the program.

“Obviously I came here to win games, but I also came here to change the culture of the basketball team,” Rabb says. “Berkeley has so much to offer as a school, so why not offer the academic side and the basketball side? We can be a big-time, huge program for many, many years and I think this is the year to really put us over the top.”

portraits by John Todd/isiphotos.com