When it comes to evaluating a team’s potential trajectory over the course of a season, I prefer to reserve any type of serious assessment until, at minimum, we’re a quarter through. While it’s easy to jump on an early-season narrative and ride with it until the very end, such a methodology doesn’t always paint the most accurate picture.
It’s not uncommon early in the year for teams to have hot streaks and cold spells, one night playing the role of Dr. Jekyll and the next that of Mr. Hyde. Once teams get more and more games under their belt, only then does the road they’re heading down become more fixed. Regarding the Cal men’s basketball team, however, the future of this team, at least in the short term that is the 2017-18 season, is unmistakably bleak.
The writing was on the wall before the Bears stepped on the hardwood. Not only would Cal have to adapt to a new head coach in Wyking Jones, but an almost completely new roster. That lack of cohesion and chemistry was fully on display in the team’s opening night loss to UC Riverside. Against a Highlander squad that barely won more than 30 percent of its games last season, the Bears couldn’t arise out of their offseason hibernation and were taken by surprise in the loss.
Cal managed to pick up the pieces in the subsequent two games against Cal Poly and Wofford with a pair of wins and flew across the Pacific into Hawaii with its system apparently beginning to click, only for that system to completely break down over the course of three losses, each worse than the last. A blown opportunity against No. 6 Wichita State fed into a 14-point loss to VCU, which fed into a 22-point loss to Chaminade, a Division II program with an abhorrent all-time record at the Maui Invitational.
Despite the team’s collective gloom, Cal has a pair of bright spots in freshmen Darius McNeill and Justice Sueing. The squad’s drastic roster turnover has allowed these young cubs to slide into the starting lineup, and the duo has seamlessly transitioned to heavy minutes right out of the gate.
Sueing needed only one game to force his way into the starting lineup and McNeill only needed two, and with both freshmen averaging double digits in scoring, they’ll likely remain starters for the rest of the year — the best course of action for a developing squad.
McNeill and Sueing’s status as starters is likely solidified by Cal’s lack of depth off the bench. Fellow freshman Deschon Winston and senior Nick Hamilton initially got the starting nod on opening night, but both have been relegated to a bench unit that has struggled to put points on the board. With the lack of a steady bench presence, Jones has had to rely heavily on his starting unit for scoring.
What is more jarring than Cal’s lack of offensive production off the bench has been the team’s lack of a defensive presence out on the perimeter. For all of junior Don Coleman’s spectacular scoring outbursts, he’s been a net negative on defense. The senior duo of Marcus Lee and Kingsley Okoroh has solidified the paint, but Lee has found himself in foul trouble far too often, which has put a major cap on the impact he can have on a game.
This year won’t be the season Cal begins to even creep into the national conversation, let alone clinch a winning record, but this go-around won’t be a complete loss. Unless McNeill and Sueing take the Moore route and depart for greener pastures, next year’s Bears squad will feature a pair of freshmen who may contend for in-conference honors.
While Cal will lose two key cogs in Lee and Okoroh, it currently boasts one of the nation’s better recruiting classes and will welcome a transfer in redshirt junior Paris Austin. The first year of the Jones era won’t be the prettiest of seasons, but will provide a peek into a potentially bright future.