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The Rothstein Files: Jabari Bird is Cal’s X-factor

1. Jabari Bird is the X-Factor for Cal

Cuonzo Martin doesn’t possess the same talent base that he did last season, but the Bears are still more than capable of being a sneaky good Pac-12 team that gets back to the NCAA Tournament.

Cal has a legitimate national player of the year candidate in sophomore big man Ivan Rabb, a steady back court in Sam Singer and Grant Mullins (Columbia transfer) as well as a potential jet in 5-9 freshman Charlie Moore.

But the biggest X-Factor for this team during the 16-17 season is senior wing Jabari Bird.

January 24, 2015: California guard Jabari Bird (23) lays the ball up during the NCAA basketball game between the California Golden Bears and the Arizona Wildcats at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, CA.

Matt Cohen/Icon Sportswire

The 6-6 Bird didn’t play in Cal’s NCAA Tournament loss against Hawaii last March due to a back injury, but still took this team to a different level in 15-16 when he produced.

The Bears were 18-3 last season in games where Bird scored in double-figures, and if this team is again going to challenge for a spot in the top third of the Pac-12 standings then Bird has to take his game up a notch.

After averaging 10.5 points over the past two seasons, Cal needs Bird to raise his scoring output and average around 14-15 points to fully complement Rabb on the interior and give the Bears a bonafide secondary scoring threat.

2. Notre Dame’s collective experience will again be a major factor

Mike Brey has been telling people for years that “getting old and staying old” has been a major key in the Irish’s success over the last decade and don’t expect that motto to change this season.

Notre Dame’s projected starting lineup — Matt Farrell, Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson, and Martin Geben — has a combined 17 years of college experience and that alone should make the Irish an NCAA Tournament team for the seventh time in the last eight seasons.

This team won’t be quite as lethal in ball-screen action as it’s been in the past two years with Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson at the point of attack, but Brey has proved over the years that he’s got different ways to skin a cat.

When he had Ben Hansbrough in 2011, he implemented the “burn” offense to use as much of the shot clock as he possibly could on each possession, and then during the last two seasons Brey regularly isolated both Grant and Jackson on the perimeter.

Expect Notre Dame to again be one of the better squads in the ACC this season, as 12 teams from this conference begin practice with realistic hopes of playing in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

3. Darryl Reynolds is in position to have a breakout season for Villanova

The defending national champions had planned to start freshman big man Omari Spellman in the pivot during the upcoming season, but the NCAA’s decision to rule Spellman as a partial qualifier means that Reynolds will now likely be thrusted into that role instead.

A career reserve, the 6-9 Reynolds averaged 9.0 points and 10.6 rebounds in the three games that Daniel Ochefu missed last season with injury and has all the requisites to enjoy a breakout senior year.

Under Jay Wright’s watch, several players in Villanova’s program have gone from marginal contributor to significant producer as seniors and Reynolds is next in line to join that selective group.

A quality screener and role player, look for Reynolds to make the most of his opportunity as the Wildcats’ lone experienced interior threat.

February 08, 2015: Stanford Cardinal forward Reid Travis (22) takes a free throw during the game between the Stanford Cardinal and the USC Trojans at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, California, USA. The Stanford Cardinal defeated the USC Trojans 70-62.

John Hefti/Icon Sportswire

This and That:

– America has forgotten about Stanford’s Reid Travis. The 6-8 big man only played a total of eight games last season due to a leg injury, but is primed to be one of the better big men in the Pac-12 during the 16-17 campaign. After taking in practice last week in Northern California, it’s safe to assume that Travis should be a 15-and-10 guy under first-year head coach Jerod Haase. The Minnesota native averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds in the eight games he appeared in last season.

– I’m hearing SMU is likely to start this season with 6-5 sophomore Shake Milton at point guard. Milton averaged 10.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.7 assists last season as a wing. The Ponies will likely be picked anywhere between third and fifth in the American Conference preseason poll.

– The sleeper in St. John’s recruiting class is German import Richard Freudenberg. The 6-8 forward has Gordon Hayward-like attributes and should have an immediate impact for the Red Storm this season. It’s going to take some time for Freudenberg to adjust to the college game, but he already competes, can make shots, and has the ability to extend defenses as a stretch power forward if Chris Mullin opts to go small. This kid has a chance to be an All-Big East caliber playing by his junior season if he continues to refine his game.

– Florida State allowed opponents to shoot 44.2 percent from the field last season and still won 20 games, including an 8-10 mark in conference play. This is the sleeper team in the ACC.

– Is there a team in college basketball more banged up than Temple? The Owls announced last week that sophomore wing Trey Lowe will redshirt during the upcoming season due to multiple injuries he suffered in a car accident and Josh Brown’s status for 16-17 is still very much up in the air following surgery on his Achilles. Fran Dunphy has always found a way to do more with less during the course of his head coaching career, but it’s hard to see Temple being competitive with the top teams in the American Conference if they don’t have Brown.

– San Diego State was 16-1 last season in games where Malik Pope scored eight or more points. Can you say X-Factor?

– Iona’s Deyshonee Much will be Tim Cluess’ next great perimeter scorer. The 6-5 guard averaged 13.0 points last season and made 80 three-point shots while shooting 44.7 percent from long distance. It says here that Much will make over 100 deep balls in 16-17.

– Mississippi State’s Xavian Stapleton (knee) is currently participating in non-contact drills and is aiming for a late-December return, Ben Howland told FanRag. A transfer from Louisiana Tech, the 6-6 Stapleton averaged 6.7 points during the 14-15 season and has suffered two ACL injuries since his arrival in Starkville. Stapleton is expected to be a key rotation player for Mississippi State during SEC play this season.

– Creighton’s Cole Huff (knee) began practicing on a limited basis over the weekend, Greg McDermott told FanRag. A 6-8 forward, Huff averaged 11.3 points and 5.1 rebounds while making 62 three-point shots last season. Huff had microfracture surgery on his knee following the conclusion of last year.

– There are very few women on this Earth that I would consider missing the Final Four for, but Jennifer Aniston definitely falls into that category. What was Brad Pitt thinking?

Jon Rothstein has been a college basketball insider for CBS Sports since 2010 and is the lead college basketball columnist for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the host of the College Hoops Today Podcast via Compass Media Networks, which is available via iTunes. Rothstein is also a regular in-studio correspondent for both WFAN and CBS Sports Radio. He currently lives in Manhattan. 

The Rothstein Files: Jabari Bird is Cal’s X-factor
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