At the beginning of March, not many envisioned the Cal men’s basketball team ambling off the court after an 11-point loss in its first game of the NCAA Tournament.
In fact, just a few days before the Big Dance, most analysts weren’t focused on the first round at all.
“It’s a fascinating matchup against Maryland in the round of 32,” said ESPN’s Joe Lunardi on March 14. Referencing a potential matchup with the Terrapins, Lunardi — one of college basketball’s well-known tournament forecasters — had stuck with the popular prediction that the Bears would advance past the 13th-seeded Hawaii in this year’s national postseason battle.
But predictability was far from the theme of Cal’s 2015-16 campaign. And ultimately coming up short in a 77-66 loss to the Rainbow Warriors, the Bears (23-11, 12-6 Pac-12) ended a rollercoaster year in perhaps their most confounding week of the whole season.
It wasn’t just the upset itself that underscored the tumultuous course of the Bears’ NCAA tournament trajectory. Beginning with the firing of assistant coach Yann Hufnagel due to sexual harassment allegations and concluding with Tyrone Wallace’s hand injury and Jabari Bird’s absence, the week before Cal’s tip-off against Hawaii left the Bears shaken and undermanned. After having just received its highest seed in tournament history at the four spot, Cal’s ensuing loss to the Big West squad marked a particularly drastic turn of events.
“When you have a level of momentum and you’re going into something and you hit a bump in the road and then the situation that took place with one of our coaches, then all of a sudden Tyrone goes down, and then Jabari Bird. I mean, it’s tough for young guys to overcome,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin.
That chaos, in some ways, is a testament to the mixed messages from the Bears all season long.
After Martin pulled off one of the best recruiting jobs in the country by signing two top-10 freshmen in forwards Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, expectations were high for the squad from day one. And with the return of a talented backcourt including Wallace, many saw the team having a shot at the Pac-12 title. But Cal showed signs of its relative experience early on when it dropped games to San Diego State and Richmond in November. From then on, it was clear that it would be a bumpy road to the postseason.
Struggling to find a cohesive offense and encountering trouble against their opponents’ zone defenses, the Bears floundered early in season and in conference play despite showing flashes of brilliance against teams such as Arizona and Virginia. By the end of January, Cal was 1-8 away from home and 4-5 in conference play.
With their tournament fate in bubble territory, the Bears then did the unexpected. Embarking on a seven-game winning streak that included a win over then-No. 11 Oregon, the Bears finished their regular season ranked third in the conference and in comfortable territory heading into the postseason. The squad had the stingiest defense in the Pac-12 and was seeing its offense finally coalesce with improved performances from its freshmen. A four seed and a deep tournament run seemed within the range of possibility.
Unfortunately for Cal, that return to preseason expectations was as brief as its postseason run.
Dani Jo Coony covers men’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected].