Despite falling 69-64 on Wednesday to the Norwegian National Team in Rykkinn, Norway, the California men's hoops squad did have a few bright spots. Senior Harper Kamp made a big comeback from knee sorness which had limited him earlier in the trip to score 12 points. Junior point guard Brandon Smith poured in nine and junior forward Robert Thurman chipped in six points and five boards.
It was the starting point guard, however, who drew the most attention. Sophomore Justin Cobbs, who transferred to Cal from Minnesota before the start of last season, led the Bears with 13 points, as top scorer Allen Crabbe was held to just five shots and seven points by a 1-2-2 zone defense.
Cobbs has proven to be a very physical, tough customer running the point, both in practices and during the first games of the trip across Scandinavia, a trait he gets from playing football for the first two years of his prep career. On his left forearm, he bears a scar from taking a hit from a broken facemask during one play.
"I played wide receiver and safety. That was kind of fun. I'm not violent off the court, but on, it could be a little …" Cobbs trails off, before smiling. "I still can be something I bring back from high school."
"They were talking to me my sophomore year, and then my mom said, 'Stop. You have to pick one thing or you'll get hurt,' so I picked basketball," Cobbs says.
After spending a year in the cold of Minnesota, Cobbs came back out to his home state, only to find himself even further north on the team's trip this summer, where he has seen a lot of time running the club from the point guard position.
All last year, Cobbs had to sit on the sidelines during games, despite going at it in every practice with the team. After being out of competition for a year, Cobbs felt something he hadn't felt in a long time as Cal geared up for its 10-day trip.
Click Here to view this Link."I don't think there's a difference, but I can tell you the one thing was that my redshirt practice year, you know, scrimmages, I'd go in, not really nervous at all, just trying to play my game, trying to get better and trying to work hard," says Cobbs. "I feel that this year, the first scrimmage, I was kind of anxious and nervous, like I want to do so well, and I got the butterflies. I think that could be the only difference, me feeling finally the anxiety that I'm going to be playing. I think that's the only thing. It's kind of opposite. Now, I'm trying to calm down and just get into things, but I was kind of nervous, and that's probably how it's going to be until I put on the jersey for the first time."
With Smith having started all last year, and other guard options in senior Jorge Gutierrez and sophomore Emerson Murray, Cobbs has spent time so far at both the one and the two. Who will end up starting when the Bears face off against UC San Diego on Nov. 1 in a season-opening exhibition?
"We don't know. In practice, I'm mostly at the one right now and just learning where guys are going to be, just learning the chemistry, learning where Allen likes the ball, but I kind of knew him through high school a little bit," says Cobbs. "It's also knowing where Jorge likes the ball and Big Richard [Solomon], he likes the lobs sometimes, he's a little athletic, and Harper likes to go over his right shoulder, so it's just finding my guys and learning how to be a team this year and increase our chemistry as a team as a point guard -- knowing which players can do what and where to get them the ball."
Though Cobbs and Smith are the odds-on final two in that race, with Gutierrez likely staying at the two, there isn't a single glimmer of animosity between the two gregarious young men.
"Me and Brandon are always cool. There's no animosity between me and Brandon, but it's just actually kind of fun," says Cobbs. "I just know every day that it's not going to be a day off, where I can come in and say that I don't want to practice, because I know if I don't want to practice, Brandon's going to come at me and I might have a terrible practice and that won't look good to my team or any of the coaches. Every day, we come out pushing each other, making each other better, and it's kind of, in a way, one of the toughest battles in practice for anybody. It matches up me and Brandon and Jorge and Emerson. Right now, me and Brandon are going at it, trying to see who's going to get that spot."
Apart from Gutierrez, Cobbs is the most physically aggressive player on the court for the Bears. Well-muscled, quick and hard-nosed, Cobbs finds that, despite his 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame, he gets a wide berth when driving the lane, but, there is a bit of a learning curve.
"I feel like it's a little easier to get to the basket," he says. "Guys will maybe sometimes move out of the way, but lots of times, it can get me in trouble, taking charges, so it just comes down to me understanding how far I should go, being balanced, and maybe sometimes taking a pull-up and they keep going and maybe get a charge or a blocking, because you never want to put the call in the ref's hands. They might make the right call, might make the wrong call, so it's just being balanced and just making the right decision. Sometimes it's a jump stop pass and sometimes it's to jump up and shoot it. It's easier to get to the basket, knowing that guys don't want to get that contact so I can just go up and finish."
Spending a year on the bench, though, has taught the fiery Cobbs to temper his aggression with a bit of wisdom and some more forethought. While being unavailable for games, he learned perhaps a point guard's most valuable asset of all.
"Patience," he smiles. "Not taking the game for granted. Sitting out was kind of hard for me, so it's like, any time something can be taken away. It's not taking anything for granted, reminding you that you've got to work, work, work every day and focus on the time at hand. You can't look at the next practice. You can't look at the next game. You can't look at the season. You've got to focus on that time."
The time at hand at this particular moment is the European trip, on which Cal is now 2-1. Before leaving on his first overseas trip, Cobbs shared what he was looking forward to most.
"Just the food. The food is what I want to see what that's like, what the girls are like," he laughs. "I've never been over there, so just to see the different things, the different restaurants they have. Everywhere, out here, you see McDonalds, Jack in the Box, but I want to see what they have out there, see their favorite things to do and just see even the way they drive, steering wheels on the other side, everything! There might be no [traffic] lights, so we'll see."
Not that he'll have to worry about driving -- the Bears are mainly traveling via bus -- but when it comes to down time, Cobbs was more than ready to learn more about his own teammates.
"That's the main thing that I've been thinking about, just how close we're going to become as a team. We're already a close-knit team, but at the same time, being around 13 guys for 10 days, we're basically going to be like brothers. Some guys that don't get the chance to be around each other so much, not that they're going to be forced to, but we're going to be so close that you get to learning about different guys, different things they like, different things they like to do, so that should be another good thing for us, just to understand each other as people, not just as basketball players."
So far on the trip, Cobbs has scored in double digits twice -- 12 points in the opener against the Solna Vikings and 13 against the Norwegian National Team -- and posted six assists against the Vikings and five boards and seven points in a narrow 76-74 win over Uppsala Basket.
"I've never played with these guys before against another team, so this is going to be really exciting for me," Cobbs said before he left. "Once again, I'll probably have those butterflies, but once we get out there and once the first shot goes down, the first ball, I'll be back and not nervous anymore. It's going to be a fun experience, and also, to measure where we're at as a team, and seeing how far we've gotten already."
Cal came out with a starting lineup of Cobbs, Crabbe, Kamp, Smith, and Richard Solomon and built a 24-12 lead in the first quarter. Though the game began with an up-tempo flavor, things began to slow at the end of the first stanza as each team ran the clock to run their offenses.
Norway came back in the second quarter to outscore the Bears, 25-12, and grab a 37-36 lead heading into the halftime break. By the end of the fourth quarter, Cal found itself down by seven points, 56-49. Though the Bears fought back, Norway was able to hold them off to claim a 69-64 win.
Cal will now have two days off as the team travels to Copenhagen, Denmark. There, the Bears will face the Danish National Team in two games at the Farum Arena Stavnsholtvej 41. The first game takes place at 5 p.m. (8 a.m. PT) on Sat., Aug. 20, with a rematch set for 1 p.m. (4 a.m. PT) on Sun., Aug. 21.