Uncertain future for Cal men’s basketball

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Daniel Kim/File

Some teams continue to dance, some teams have had their dance and some teams are involved in little to no dancing at all. The Cal men’s basketball team falls into that final category. The first round NIT loss ─ at home and as a No. 1 seed, no less ─ to No. 8-seeded CSU Bakersfield last week culminated a season that could best be described as underwhelming.

That’s not to say there weren’t highlights for the Bears this season. But when a team playing decently well drops five of its final six regular season games, fails to get a bid to the NCAA Tournament and gets blown away in the NIT first round when it has the talent to win the whole tournament, it’s safe to say the season ended in disappointment. To top it all off, that sentiment is only amplified when the head coach resigns the day after the NIT loss to take an equivalent position elsewhere, leaving a cringeworthy taste in the mouths of Cal fans with his departure.

But being in the first four out, there are certainly many arguments to say that Cal should have made the NCAA Tournament, and there are many small details about the season which could speak to why they didn’t make it.

Former head coach Cuonzo Martin was quick to point out that Cal lost a few crucial home games, and Cal’s relative lack of success at home compared to last season’s team was notable. The first two significant home losses were both in December, to ranked teams then-No. 12 Virginia and No. 18 Arizona.

A few weeks later, Cal hit arguably its best run of form all season, taking down then-No. 25 USC on the road as part of a stretch in which it won eight of nine But this was followed with the aforementioned late-season collapse, including a blown second-half lead at home against No. 6 Oregon.

Had the Bears maintained their lead over Oregon, it is very likely that they would have earned the coveted NCAA bid, but that loss best exemplified the general problems with this team this season.

While they improved on their defense and stayed best in the conference, their offense dropped from 74.9 to 68.1 points per game from last season to this season. And in the Oregon game, Cal held the Ducks to just 68 points, far below Oregon’s season average of 79.5. But the Bears failed throughout the second half to score easy buckets and take care of the ball, falling victim to full court press.

Obviously, not having a premium athlete like Jaylen Brown on the wing changed the identity of the team. Ivan Rabb was what we expected (and more) down low, anchoring the defense while still producing off the offensive glass and adding mid- and long-range jumpers to his arsenal. But Cal struggled with the expected double teams that would come Rabb’s way, and the Bears frequently got back on defense empty handed.

Like Martin, Rabb is very likely gone, having seen his draft stock drop significantly from a projected top-10 pick in last year’s NBA draft, to now just a late-first round projection. Jabari Bird has played out his NCAA eligibility, so naturally, the focus is left on freshman point guard Charlie Moore, whom the program can build around for the next few seasons.

That is, if he stays at Cal.

Martin was one of the biggest reasons Moore choose Cal after he decommitted from Memphis, and without Martin around, it’s certainly possible Moore will go elsewhere, with three years of eligibility remaining. But if he decides to stay, he will be able to play with Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee, and that could be a deadly combo.

The future of Cal basketball is very much in the balance. Rabb’s decision is the most significant, but he is very likely to leave, considering he sat out the NIT game with a mysterious plantar fasciitis injury that couldn’t really be explained. But if Moore also departs, we could be looking at a very different Cal team next year.

Vikram Muller covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].