At the start of the season, the Cal men’s basketball team looked like it was off to a promising start. While the Bears had two wins over cupcake teams Alcorn State and Kennesaw State, they made it to the semifinals of the 2K Classic in Madison Square Garden and easily handled then-No. 23 Syracuse, 73-59.
Cal looked like it could be a really good team.
Of course, the next day, Cal lost badly in the finals to then-No. 10 Texas, 71-55, but fans were excited, thinking maybe this program was really on the up and up with the hiring of new head coach Cuonzo Martin.
Except that the loss to Texas turned out to be an apt look at how the rest of Cal’s season would go, with the Bears (18-15, 7-11 Pac-12) — who ultimately finished the season without attending a postseason tournament — having major troubles against highly ranked teams and teams with better records and occasionally even struggling against teams that should have been easy wins.
But after the loss to Texas, Cal continued its season with more wins — against teams such as Fresno State, Wyoming, Princeton, Nevada and a double-overtime win over Montana — and in its first 11 games, Cal lost just one of them. Then the Bears faced then-No. 6 Wisconsin, and Cal looked incredibly overmatched, falling 68-56.
“I don’t think we played to our potential, of course,” Martin said of his team. “We had some opportunities, but they didn’t fall. I thought our guys did a good job turning the corner on those balls screens. They were locked in on the task at hand.”
The next day, Cal lost an embarrassing game to CSU Bakersfield in the Bears’ final nonconference game before a tough Pac-12 slate, and it seemed like the season started to fall apart. After the game, Martin said the team “lost on principle” and just didn’t come out While Cal eked out the win over then-No. 21 Washington, the Bears lost their next six games, an important mid-season stretch with losses to teams from which Cal easily could have walked away with a “w” — USC, Arizona State and Washington State.
Things briefly looked better when Cal had three exciting last-second wins, but even that wasn’t enough to turn the year around. So, at the end of the season, Cal wasn’t even offered a bid to the National Invitational Tournament — a tournament for teams not invited to the NCAA tournament — and turned down its bid to the College Basketball Invitational.
There were still some bright spots on the season, including the play of junior guard Tyrone Wallace, who stepped up into playing the role of point guard and finished with an average of 17.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. For his play, he garnered first-team all-Pac-12 honors.
“It was a proud moment,” Wallace said.
The year also showed the high potential of Cal’s sophomore guards, including starters Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird. Mathews became one of the team’s top scorers, averaging 13.6 points per game, and occasionally led the team in scoring, especially when teams would overcommit to Wallace. Bird missed a large part of the year due to an injury, but when he came back healthy, he showed off his raw talent.
Sam Singer, who came in off the bench, is a true point guard and showed promise. In perhaps the most exciting moment of the season, Singer nailed a 3-pointer against Washington to give the Bears the 90-88 win.
Even with the overall season outcome — Martin said the team turned down the CBI bid to focus on recruiting — it’s true that it can take time (typically considered three years) for a new head coach’s system to really take hold.
And, at the end of everything, Martin said he was proud of his team.
“I thought the guys fought, I thought they grew, and I thought they learned,” he said.