Mark Fox hopeful at media day despite early season doubts

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As Mark Fox begins his tenure as head coach of Cal men’s basketball, expectations have, literally, never been lower. A preseason media poll released Monday has the Bears dead last in the conference, stealing the crown from Washington State, who held the 12th place spot for the last three seasons. For both years under former head coach Wyking Jones, Cal was picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12.

“I mean, to be honest with you, it makes no difference to me,” Fox said at the Pac-12 Media Day on Tuesday. “No disrespect to any of you, but I don’t read the articles. I don’t listen to the stories. I look at our team, and we try and figure out how to win the day and get better.”

Despite Fox’s optimism, transforming the Bears into a winning program is a tall order. Three of the five leading scorers from last season have transferred after last season’s 3-15 conference record and last-place finish. To make matters worse, the list of transfers include Cal’s former leading scorer Justice Sueing, who now plays for Ohio State.

Overall, Cal returns 52.2% of its scoring from last year and while that is the fourth highest in the conference, the Bears scored the least total points last season.

“I just think there’s a lot of things that are advantages for us,” Fox said. “Every job has their own set of challenges. We obviously are inheriting a situation where we haven’t had as much success in the last couple years as we wanted. But we have some advantages going forward that if we just find the right formula that we can rebuild this program to places that everybody wants it to be.”

Some good news for the Bears is that they are returning 71.6% of their assists and 58.3% of their rebounding from last year, both the third highest in the Pac-12. Paris Austin, Matt Bradley and Andre Kelly, who all started last year, are returning along with most of the Bears’ bench. Five of the six bench players who scored points last season will return for the 2019-20 season.

“Well, I think that our players have had a summer where they made lots of improvements. Is there an aspect of the game where we’ve improved the most? I think I will say it’s less than basketball-specific,” Fox said. “I think that we’ve really learned how to work and how to show up every day and give the right efforts, and those efforts have led to improvements in how we pass it and how we shoot it.”

The biggest changes Cal made this offseason are the new faces in the coaching staff. Fox himself spent nine years at Georgia before being fired in 2018 with a final record of 163-133 (a .551 winning percentage). After his time at Georgia, he was assistant coach to Jeff Van Gundy for USA Basketball and assisted the Milwaukee Bucks Summer League squad before being hired earlier this year by the Bears.

“It’s great to be at Cal. Obviously, as a new coach,” Fox said. “I have 17 new players, guys all trying to learn how we want to play. But they’ve had — they’ve been very responsive. I’ve been very pleased with their efforts, and I’m excited about our team and where we can go.”

Andrew Francis and Chris Harriman also join Cal’s only returning assistant coach, Marty Wilson, to round out Fox’s assistants. The Bears also brought in Trent Johnson as deputy analyst and director of player development. Johnson has more than 20 years of coaching experience, including time as the head coach of Nevada, Stanford, LSU and TCU.

“Trent Johnson is extremely valuable to our program for lots of reasons,” Fox said. “One, he was very successful as a head coach, has great experience. He’s at a great place in his life. I think the most valuable thing really for us is the wisdom that he brings.”

The only thing that is certain about Cal is that a lot has changed in the past year. For better or for worse is still to be seen, but with preseason expectations so low, it will not take much for Fox and the Bears to give Cal fans some hope.

Trilok Reddy covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].