New year, new hope: Cal men’s basketball tasked with climbing out of Pac-12’s basement

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Let’s not mince words — last season was a disaster.

Cal men’s basketball finished dead last in the Pac-12, had the most losses in program history, was the worst offensive team in the Pac-12 and, depending on the perspective, was the worst defensive team in the conference as well.

Cal’s task of climbing out of the basement of the Pac-12 won’t get any easier considering the team lost Marcus Lee and Kingsley Okoroh to graduation while Don Coleman transferred to South Alabama.

For all of their collective shortcomings, these players were veteran presences on a team with eight underclassmen and three freshmen playing big minutes. With Lee, Okoroh and Coleman gone, the youngest team in the Pac-12 got even younger.

All that being said, what semblance of optimism does Cal have heading into the second season of the Wyking Jones era?

Cal’s future begins with current sophomores Justice Sueing and Darius McNeill, both of whom emerged as two of the team’s primary scoring options last season, averaging 13.8 and 11.3 points per game, respectively.

It’s not convention to give a pair of freshmen that much responsibility on the offensive end, but given the roster, they were ultimately thrust into that position.

Sueing and McNeill both endured bumps in the road throughout the season, but they held their own and flashed their respective potential. McNeill set the program record for 3-pointers made in a single season by a freshman, while Sueing led a 17-point comeback against Stanford.

McNeill was thrust into the point guard position as a freshman, but his best work came off the ball. With the addition of redshirt junior Paris Austin, who transferred to Cal from Boise State, McNeill will have the opportunity to play to his strength and operate off the catch-and-shoot.

Austin gives Cal a traditional point guard — a position that wasn’t a staple in last season’s offense. The point guard’s assist-to-turnover ratio and poor percentage from distance during his time at Boise State are areas of concern, but at minimum, Austin should be someone who can orchestrate Cal’s offense while providing a toughness and veteran leadership.

One of the more interesting players returning to the fray is sophomore Juhwan Harris-Dyson. He had a fine freshman campaign, averaging 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game while shooting 49.3 percent from the field, but those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.

Harris-Dyson’s season was initially derailed when he caught a nasty case of the flu, causing him to lose 20 pounds and miss Cal’s first two games of the season. Instead of joining Sueing and McNeill from the get-go, Harris-Dyson was eased into Cal’s rotation and wasn’t playing heavy minutes until January.

Even with the flu, Harris-Dyson managed to have his moments, such as when he approached triple-double territory with a 10-point, 9-rebound, 7-assist performance in late February. A full season out of a healthy Harris-Dyson will deepen Cal’s guard and wing rotation and may even swing a game or two.

Speaking of depth, the addition of four-star freshmen Matt Bradley and Jacobi Gordon will help address the loss of Coleman.

At 6’4”, 220 pounds, Bradley is cut from a similar cloth to that of former Arizona Wildcat Rawle Alkins, a bigger guard with the physique of a defensive end who can use his body as a wrecking ball to barrel into the paint. He can also be an imposing fixture on the defensive end — an area where Cal desperately needs some dogs.

Gordon enters this season after an Achilles injury he sustained during his senior year of high school. He will likely follow a timeline similar to Harris-Dyson’s post-flu, easing into the rotation, and the coaching staff will play it by ear.

When he’s on the floor, Gordon provides a service that the Bears desperately need: shooting. Much like McNeill, a fellow Houston boy, the wing has a buttery stroke, and he’s not afraid to let it fly. In Cal’s exhibition against Cal State East Bay, Gordon knocked down two 3-pointers on five attempts in only 14 minutes of play off the bench.

While Jones can roll out a plethora of different combinations with his guards and wings, the frontcourt is far more limited.

Cal returns sophomore Grant Anticevich and welcomes freshmen Andre Kelly and Connor Vanover. Sueing will more than likely see some frontcourt minutes as well.

All three have the ability to spread the floor on offense, which forces opposing big men to extend out the perimeter and opens up the paint for slashers such as Austin and Sueing.

Anticevich didn’t see the floor too often last season, but he took the three when presented with the opportunity. He only hit 2 of his 13 attempts and was seldom able to develop a rhythm with inconsistent playing time.

There’s some promise on offense, but players on the defensive end are more of a concern, as none of them are projected to have the same defensive prowess as Lee or Okoroh.

With the nightmare that was last season finally over, there’s a feeling that there’s nowhere to go but up for this Cal team. On the flip side of that coin, finishing last in the Pac-12 is still a legitimate possibility.

Much of the responsibility of digging themselves out of this hole will fall on Sueing, McNeill and Austin, but it is Jones who will be at the center of their success or their futility.

The honeymoon phase is coming to a close. Incoherent systems on offense and defense won’t suffice. This team needs to develop an identity, one that’s not just predicated on “toughness.” Jones has had a whole offseason to reflect on last year, and being an inexperienced head coach is no longer an excuse.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.