A month into the regular season, the Cal men’s basketball team (6-7) finds itself in very unfamiliar territory, as it finished nonconference play with a losing record for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
That Ben Braun-led squad would finish the season with a sub-.500 winning percentage, and if the current group of young Bears wants to record an 11th straight winning season, it’ll have to grow up fast.
With conference play on the horizon, Cal is nearing the halfway point of the regular season — here’s a look at what this season has had to offer thus far.
Cal came into the season having lost the overwhelming majority of its roster — the team brought back only five players from last season. Of those five returners, senior Kingsley Okoroh and junior Don Coleman were the only two to crack double digits in minutes per game last season.
The team’s roster turnover placed recently promoted head coach Wyking Jones in a tricky scenario, one which would force him to call upon multiple freshmen — there are only so many minutes he could reasonably give to Coleman, Okoroh and seniors Marcus Lee and Nick Hamilton.
These circumstances, however, have provided freshmen Darius McNeill and Justice Sueing with the perfect opportunity to receive ample playing time right off the bat. Jones has given these freshmen big minutes, and the young duo has taken the opportunity and run with it. Cal has yet to start conference play, but McNeill and Sueing will be key pieces to the Pac-12 puzzle and appear to be pillars in the program’s long-term future.
“They’ve had to endure being a freshman a whole lot quicker than most people,” Lee said. “I knew it would be rough for them, so we kinda just tried to guide them as much as possible. We’ve had to get on them over and over so they understood what was going on. A lot of mental things that they were able to get over now that we’ve been through a couple games.”
Neither McNeill nor Sueing began the season in Jones’ starting lineup, but they both forced their coach’s hand through stellar play off the bench. The freshmen started together for the first time in Cal’s third game of the season against Wofford and have since been staples in the starting five.
McNeill, averaging 13.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, has emerged as both Cal’s primary ballhandler and a dead-eye shooter. The Houston native has been very efficient while jacking up the second-most shots, draining 50.4 percent of his attempts from the field and 45.9 percent from three, good for a team-high true shooting percentage of 63.4 percent. McNeill also started the season draining at least one 3-pointer in each of his first 12 games.
One aspect of McNeill’s game that he may look to develop is getting to the free-throw line. While Cal has attempted the most free throws in the nation, McNeill has only attempted 2.3 per game, the fewest of any player who has started at least 10 games.
Sueing, averaging 11.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists, tends to operate inside the three-point line, combining his quickness and his 6’7”, 209-pound frame to get good looks at the rim and to get to the free-throw line.
“Being thrown in there, you gotta grow up quick,” Sueing said. “With growing up quick, we can’t use that as an excuse. We gotta keep growing together, and I think we’re doing that right now. I have to keep learning the game as time goes on because I’m a freshman. Regardless of what year, we’re all learning. Learning each other, learning the offense and Coach Jones’ new way of play. You gotta learn fast. We don’t have time to take it easy.”
The forward’s shooting from beyond the arc has been a pleasant surprise as well; Sueing isn’t putting up 3-pointers at the same rate as McNeill, but he’s drained 12 of 33, good for a three-point percentage of 36.4 percent. Sueing’s defense has arguably been more impressive, as he’s totaled 23 steals, the third most in the Pac-12.
“Coming from Mater Dei, they prepare you pretty well,” Sueing said. “The practicing, the games, the coaching, the whole base of what they try to teach you and get you ready for this level. I think they’ve done a pretty good job. I feel like I’ve adjusted really fast. The physicality of the game is probably the biggest difference from high school going into college. Knowing that you have to be ready and mentally prepared, I think I’ve done a pretty good job.”
In addition, fellow freshman Juhwan Harris-Dyson has played very well in limited minutes. Harris-Dyson faced a major setback to begin the season, missing the first two games of the season because of illness and dropping from 200 to 180 pounds.
The freshman is still working to rebuild his strength and fully get back into game shape, but he has shown flashes on both ends of the floor. In only 15.4 minutes per game, Harris-Dyson is averaging 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds per game while shooting 53.1 percent from the field.
Harris-Dyson has yet to get consistent big minutes, but he’s shined when played for an extended period. In games in which he’s played at least 20 minutes, the forward is averaging 8.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting 57 percent from the field.
Speaking of defense, the two-headed monster of Okoroh and Lee has been better than advertised. Jones no longer starts both big men to create spacing on offense, but even with only one on the floor at a time, the paint gets shut down.
Okoroh and Lee have recorded the second- and third-most blocks in the Pac-12, respectively, with Okoroh totaling 36 blocks (2.8 per game) and Lee totaling 30 rejections (2.3 per game). Thanks to their efforts down in the paint, the Bears have recorded the most blocks in the Pac-12 (81) and the ninth most in the nation.
Okoroh is chasing history once again in the blocked shots department. The big man from Derby, England set the school record for most blocks in a single season last year with 74, and should he continue his current pace, he’ll easily eclipse his own record. Okoroh has also swatted seven shots in a game twice this season, tying the school record for most blocks in a single game.
Losing a solid core in Grant Mullins, Charlie Moore, Jabari Bird and Ivan Rabb put Jones in a tough spot in regard to the defensive end. All four were above-average defenders last season who ended with a positive Defensive Box Plus/Minus. Up to this point in the season, Cal is still looking to make improvements on defense.
Despite the bravado of Okoroh and Lee down low, Cal has been lackluster on the defensive end. Of the 351 programs in Division I basketball, the Bears rank 300th or worse in points allowed per game, opponent three-point percentage, total 3-pointers allowed and total field goals allowed.
For all their efforts on the offensive end of the floor, McNeill and Coleman have plenty of room to improve on defense. Of the 45 players in the Pac-12 who have logged at least 300 minutes played, Coleman and McNeill have the worst and second-worst Defensive Box Plus/Minus, respectively. Cal has flashed its potential on defense numerous times this season, but it has been a matter of finding a formula that works night in and night out.
“We’re starting to figure out we’re a good defensive team when we play it together,” Lee said. “We spread out as a team and that doesn’t really help us, especially because we’re so young. But when we play compact defense, talking the whole time, that’s when we’re at our best.”
For example, after Cal held then-No. 6 Wichita State to 41 percent shooting in the first game of the Maui Invitational, the team allowed VCU to shoot 50 percent even and Division II Chaminade to shoot 56 percent.
The Bears have had their shortcomings on offense as well, specifically in the turnover department. Cal’s core four starters — Coleman, McNeill, Sueing and Lee — are all averaging at least two giveaways per game, with the eldest of the pack leading the way. So far, Cal has recorded 19 or more turnovers four times this season, including a startling 25 against Portland State.
“It’s an adjustment period to know how each player likes getting the ball,” Lee said. “It’s learning each other. You see that everybody’s gone through that. Whether it’s Duke or Kentucky or it’s any team in conference right now.”
The beginning of this season didn’t exactly scream optimism when UC Riverside, a program has only one winning record since the turn of the millenium, strolled into Haas Pavilion and escaped with a win while holding Cal to 31 percent shooting from the field.
This season has unquestionably had its bright spots — Coleman’s three 30-plus point games in a span of four games, Okoroh’s two seven-block performances, McNeill’s career night against Cal State Fullerton, to name a few — but they’ve been juxtaposed by morale-crushing lows.
Entering the season, Cal hadn’t allowed 90 or more points since November 2015, but the defense has already allowed opponents to eclipse the 90-point mark four times. In those games, Cal lost by an average margin of 21.5 points, and two of them were 25-plus point blowouts at the hands of Central Arkansas and Portland State, both on Cal’s home floor. With a plethora of formidable in conference opponents on deck, of which two — No. 3 Arizona State and No. 17 Arizona — are currently ranked, the road won’t get any easier for Cal.
This Cal squad has very promising young individual pieces, but postseason prospects are highly unlikely. The Bears have yet to receive a single vote by the Associated Press’ committee, and barring an unprecedented showing against conference opponents, that is unlikely to change.
In the long term, with respect to the current team, Cal’s future lies with McNeill, Sueing and Harris-Dyson, with redshirt junior transfer Paris Austin and incoming freshmen Jacobi Gordon, Matt Bradley and Andre Kelly waiting in the wings. Jones has given hefty minutes to Hamilton, Okoroh and Lee, but the team’s future prospects lie in the aforementioned trio of freshmen.
Cal’s young core will likely go through its fair share of growing pains in the remaining 18 regular season games, but aside from a winning record, the best-case scenario in the grand scheme of the Jones era will be developing the team’s young talent and heading into next season with a full head of steam.