The question has festered in the back of everyone’s mind for the last several weeks, and with five games left in the regular season, it’s finally worth addressing: Can Cal men’s basketball actually go winless in conference play?
The last team to achieve that feat in this conference was Oregon State in 2007-08, back when it was still the Pac-10. That was a great overall season for the Pac-10, which sent six teams to the NCAA tournament. On the flip side, Cal’s woes have come during a historically weak season for the Pac-12 in which only one team may be representing the conference of champions come March.
Cal’s futility during the tenure of head coach Wyking Jones has been well-documented. This team sits at 5-20 (0-13 in conference), is slogging through a historically atrocious 14-game losing streak — the previous program record was 10 games — and has been the worst offensive and defensive team in conference play.
That last sentence isn’t an exaggeration. Against their Pac-12 contemporaries, the Bears have posted an offensive efficiency rating of 95.0 and a defensive efficiency rating of 114.9, both of which rank dead last in the conference, according to KenPom.
On the subject of shortcomings, Cal also ranks last or second to last in the following categories during conference play: offensive and defensive effective field goal percentage, offensive and defensive 3-point percentage and offensive and defensive 2-point percentage.
But Cal isn’t just bad on defense compared to teams in its conference. Among the 353 Division I teams in the entire country, Cal ranks 352nd in defensive effective field goal percentage. The only team that has a worse defensive effective field goal percentage is Incarnate Word of the Southland Conference.
Of all these numbers, there’s one, in particular, to zero in on: 41.5 percent. That’s currently Cal’s chance of a winless record, with five games remaining.
That percentage, of course, is a very conservative estimate based on quantifiable numbers. The performance of Cal and its future opponents dictate where that number stands. When considering the stats plus the intangibles, the probability of a winless conference season feels much, much higher.
So, can it happen? Let’s look at the remaining teams on the docket. Cal has Arizona and Arizona State on the road, Washington and Washington State at home, and then the team closes out the season with Stanford on the road.
That slate isn’t promising. The Bears have already lost to all of those teams this season, and the losses to the Sun Devils, Wildcats, Cougars and Huskies came by an average of 19.5 points. The one nail-biter came against the Cardinal, a devastating 3-point loss that was, in part, decided by a controversial late-game decision.
The most winnable of the five remaining games is Washington State. Cal and Wazzu have the worst and second-worst records in the Pac-12, respectively, and the game will take place in Berkeley. If the Bears are going to win one game in conference play, it will probably have to come against the Cougars.
But let’s break this matchup down further. Despite proximity in the standings, this isn’t an even matchup, as recent events have proven. Over the past several weeks, Wazzu has flipped a switch that no one knew it possessed.
Over its last five games, Washington State nearly knocked off USC at home, upset Arizona State and Arizona on the road, pushed Washington to its limit at home and beat Colorado at home. For a team that entered February with one conference win, that’s an impressive stretch of basketball.
At the center of the Cougars is Robert Franks. Franks has taken another step forward after winning the award for the most improved player last season, currently averaging 22.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists on a 63.3 True Shooting percentage.
During the Arizona trip, in particular, Franks morphed into Kevin Durant-lite, posting averages of 32.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.5 blocks.
There’s also the matter of C.J. Elleby, Washington State’s young star who has thrown his hat into the conversation for freshman of the year. Elleby has room to grow, but he’s laid down a solid foundation to the tune of 15.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
The Cougars do have some very strikable weak points. Aside from Franks and Elleby, Washington State doesn’t have another go-to scorer, but rather a collection of solid role players. Plus, like Cal, the defense leaves a lot to be desired, as the Cougars currently rank 11th in conference play in defensive efficiency.
Especially considering the tango with Washington State will go down in Berkeley, that game could go either way. If this Washington State team is for real, however, Cal could very well end up on the losing end of that affair.
This leaves Washington, Arizona, Arizona State and Stanford, the latter three of which are on the road. On paper, all these teams are far more talented, but so as to not just write them off as losses, here’s a brief examination of what these matchups may have in store:
Arizona (Previous game: Arizona def. Cal at Haas Pavilion, 87-65): The Wildcats have seen far better days. They’ve fallen completely off the map, having lost seven straight games, and the injury bug has spared no mercy. Brandon Williams’ status for the remainder of the season remains ambiguous, and most of the team has been banged up in some fashion. Cal will have a crack at Arizona at arguably its lowest point of the Sean Miller era. Yet, on paper, the Wildcats still are more talented, and sometimes, that’s all that’s needed. Plus, this game will be played in Tucson, a place Cal hasn’t won at since 2013.
Arizona State (Previous game: Arizona State def. Cal at Haas Pavilion, 80-66): There are numerous departments in which Arizona State is simply better than Cal, but one that’s particularly of note is rebounding. The Bears are one of the worst rebounding teams in the entire country; the Sun Devils are one of the best. It doesn’t help that Zylan Cheatham is eating up rebounds like they’re lunch. Can’t forget that Remy Martin is playing some of his best basketball and Luguentz Dort has rediscovered his ability to efficiently score the basketball.
Washington (Previous game: Washington def. Cal at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, 71-52): Washington has one of the best defenses in the country, and Matisse Thybulle might be the first player in Pac-12 history to win player of the year on defensive merit alone. Nothing is ever a sure thing, but a Washington win over Cal is the closest thing to it.
Stanford (Previous game: Stanford def. Cal at Haas Pavilion, 84-81): If Cal enters Maples Pavilion having yet to win a game in conference play, the combination of the rivalry and pure desperation could make for one hell of a classic game. Aside from Washington State, this is Cal’s most winnable game of the bunch. There’s a lot of time remaining between now and this matchup, but from a talent-for-talent perspective, Stanford outweighs Cal. K.Z. Okpala is a potential lottery selection, while Daejon Davis and Josh Sharma have been playing some of their best basketball of the season. Stanford has brought out the best in Cal, at least as far as the regular season is concerned, but strolling into a likely packed Maples Pavilion against a rival that has the opportunity to put the final nail in the coffin is a tall task.
It’s clear that Cal is not favored in any of its remaining games and will have to find a way to beat teams that have already taken its lunch money earlier in the season. But there’s also one major factor that needs to be taken into account, an intangible that cannot be qualified but clearly exists: None of these teams wants to be the one that loses to Cal.
Obviously, no team wants to lose, in general. But neither Arizona State nor Arizona nor Washington nor Washington State nor Stanford wants to be known as the one squad that lost to a historically bad Cal team.
It’s a matter of pride, of avoiding the slander that would derive from such a loss. The backlash would be relentless. That’s not even considering the tournament implications for Arizona State and Washington.
Consider this situation the antithesis of the defending-champion theory. When going up against the defending champs, an opposing team is likely to bring out their best and try to dethrone the kings. From here on out, Cal will bring out the best in its opponents, not because its a champion, but because the team has just been that bad.
So, to bring this all the way back to the subject at hand, can the Bears go winless in conference? Considering everything — their shortcomings, their opponents, the past encounters with said opponents, the unquantifiable — the Bears are definitely on a collision course with the wrong side of history.
For Jones, now might be the time to toss away previous game plans and throw something new at the wall in the hope that it will stick. Maybe play Andre Kelly and Connor Vanover at the same time. Maybe unleash Kelly as a point forward. Maybe allow Justice Sueing to initiate the offense and bring Paris Austin off the ball.
Whether Jones has any tricks up his sleeve remains to be seen, but as the past two months have shown, playing the same ol’ hand isn’t going to be enough.