Extreme makeover: Cal men’s basketball edition

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Cal men’s basketball is not very good at putting the ball through the hoop and even worse at stopping the opponent from doing so.

It’s been that way for a few seasons now.

Since last reaching the NCAA Tournament during the 2015-16 season under Cuonzo Martin, the Bears have gone 37-60 overall and 15-39 in Pac-12 play with one National Invitation Tournament appearance and a whole lot of heartbreak along the way. In the two seasons under head coach Wyking Jones, who took over the program after Martin’s elopement with Missouri, the Bears have gone 16-47, with just five wins combined in conference play during that period.

Somehow, the statistics fail to fully convey just how terrible the Bears have been these past couple years.

Bad, terrible or awful are adjectives that are too soft. Tragic or disastrous — too vague. Incompetent — not quite right. Gauche — not visceral enough. Dreadful? Bleak? Treasonous?

The Cal men’s basketball program is a slow-moving car crash traveling through a ghost town in the middle of a long, dark night, viciously murdering pretty little things such as rainbows, unicorns, flowers and butterflies under the weight of its airless tires and its own mediocrity.

Blood, corpses and organic misery are dragged by its rusty hubcap with the excrement and gushing blood of half-dead zombies, roadkill and failed after-timeout sets plastering the windshield of this 1998 Ford Taurus of a basketball program as it runs through stop lights, garage doors and the local cemetery while Jones mutters endlessly about opponents’ “length” and how he needs to “watch the film.”

Meanwhile, the car is on fire, the garbage has not been collected, and God is dead.

Which begs the question: Where does Cal men’s basketball go from here?


Short term

Fire Wyking Jones.

The Bears are currently in the midst of a long, winding rebuild that will last for at least the next few seasons and possess one of the conference’s youngest rosters, which means there is no magic bullet solution that will turn this program into a contender overnight, but a leadership change would be a good start.

The team has simply lost too many games to justify retaining Jones beyond this season.

Under the second-year coach’s stewardship, the Bears have suffered losing streaks that lasted nine and 16 games, respectively, fielded one of the worst defenses in college hoops history and generated pieces from the national media that openly debated whether the Bears were the worst college basketball team of the century.

Jones would have been fired long ago if he was employed at nearly any other school, yet he has survived in large part because of the athletic department’s massive stadium debt and the relative bargain his contract offers to a school hoping to limit spending as much as possible.

Previous athletic director Mike Williams is the one who hired Jones, so Jim Knowlton has all the motivation to replace Jones with someone of his own choosing, but because of financial constraints, Knowlton has given the current coaching staff more leeway than your cool uncle who let you stay up past your bedtime when mom and dad left for the weekend.

Player development is weak, in-game strategy and tactics unimaginative, and bitterness among the fan base and alumni only growing.

The best defense for Jones is that his team won three of its past four games, and he seems to have fostered a genuine camaraderie among the players and coaching staff, but at some point, Cal has to acknowledge that winning and positive culture-building do not have to be mutually exclusive.


Long term

Hire a coach who is committed to building the program, not one who is looking to warm a seat until a more attractive job offer comes along (*cough* Cuonzo Martin). This is a rebuild that will take years to complete, and to pull it off successfully, the program needs a coach who is willing to stick around until this metaphorical house is built.

The Bears have fielded one-and-done five-star recruits (Jaylen Brown), talented scorers (Allen Crabbe) and high-profile transfers (Marcus Lee) but have found sustained success much more elusive.

To achieve consistency, the Bears need a coach who will instill this team with a clear identity, comfortable with the X’s and O’s of the game and able to recruit overlooked three- and four-star prospects who, with the right kind of coaching, could develop into all-conference prospects.

In the college game, coaching and consistency make up the formula for sustained success. Apart from the few big-name stars who fill out the rosters of blue blood programs, the most effective model to follow is fostering lineups that play together for three or four seasons, as veterans mentor incoming recruits and a strong philosophy is adopted by players and fans alike. Whether that’s a defense-first attitude or run-and-gun offense, a team that knows exactly who it is can be one hell of a squad.

Winning consistently is easier said than done, and financial concerns are legitimate, but in the interest of the program’s future, the Bears can simply no longer afford to maintain the current status quo.

Rory O’Toole covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].