Cuonzo’s Destructive Wake: examining the damage done a year later

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VikramMuller

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Toward the end of the 2016-17 season, the Cal men’s basketball team infamously crumbled, dropping five of its final six regular season games ─ with three of those decisions by 5 points or fewer ─ and in the process losing a chance at a Pac-12 Tournament first round bye.

After a rather expected loss in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals to Oregon ─ which would eventually go on to the semifinals of the Big Dance ─ those prior five losses really came to haunt the Bears as they were left out on Selection Sunday.

Then came arguably the most embarrassing showing in recent Cal basketball history, when Cuonzo Martin’s team put forth a showing at home to open the National Invitation Tournament, or NIT, that could best be described as nothing less than disgraceful.

Honestly, getting into the details of the game saddens me, and I would love to leave the shame of that night in the past.

The irony, however, is that one year later, the same basketball fans in Berkeley who were so bummed out that Cal only had an NIT bid last season would desperately wish for anything resembling last season right now.

I chose to refer to last year’s laughable NIT loss to CSU Bakersfield as Martin’s doing, specifically because there were a few distinct details that could only be attributed to him, such as the sitting of Ivan Rabb because of a mysterious injury and the second-half benching of potential star freshman Charlie Moore.

What Cal has now, one year into the destructive wake of Martin’s tanking of that game, is its worst overall record since the late 1970s. It’s also the worst in-conference showing since the days of head coach Pete Newell, who is probably turning in his grave after this season.

Let me be clear that Martin’s departure by no means paints him as a traitor. Given that he had a chance to be closer to his childhood home and to be a trailblazer in the racially charged middle of the country, I can’t really disrespect Martin’s rationale for leaving Cal.

Unfortunately, the only thing I can take serious issue with is how it happened and what the result was.

Just more than a month after Martin announced his resignation and was subsequently hired by Missouri, Moore ─ a late addition to the 2016-17 Cal squad, largely because of Martin’s recruitment efforts ─ followed suit, announcing his decision to transfer to Kansas.

And if it wasn’t bad enough to lose the only very promising piece that the Bears had left after Rabb’s declaration to the NBA Draft, what hurt even more was the instant recruiting success that Martin had at Mizzou.

Within 10 days, Martin had hired Michael Porter Sr. as an assistant coach and had swung Porter’s son and one of the nation’s top recruits, Michael Porter Jr., to committing as well. Shortly thereafter, Porter Jr. helped Mizzou secure commitments from his younger brother, Jontay Porter ─ also a five-star recruit ─ and two four-star recruits in Jeremiah Tilmon and Blake Harris.

Mizzou’s season hasn’t gone quite as well as planned, with Porter Jr. getting injured just two minutes into his debut game, but he has returned from injury just in time for the Big Dance, in which the Tigers hold a No. 8 seed.

Meanwhile, Cal still sits in limbo after a disastrous first season under Wyking Jones. This isn’t to say that Cal would have secured any of the aforementioned highly touted recruits had Martin stayed in Berkeley. But it is far-fetched to think that, with him at the helm, Cal would have done any worse than it did this season.

While I actually respect a large part of the reasoning behind Martin’s departure, I, along with so many others, still feel the pain the he left Cal to deal with. As I prepare for an exciting month of March Madness, I can’t help but keep remembering that my school’s basketball team is an afterthought, while I simultaneously let out a muted “Screw you, Cuonzo.”

Vikram Muller writes the Tuesday column about current events in professional sports. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @v_muller26