Cal fans act like moths. They cluster around one point of light in a dark room, desperately hoping that it will guide them to some success, but it rarely does. Instead they discover the light is nothing but an illusion — a trick that gave them a brief glimmer of hope.
As Cal men’s basketball begins its season at home Tuesday against Pepperdine, there is a new light in the room, and all eyes will be on it as we discover its true character.
The Cal team today looks vastly different from last year. The only two returning starters are senior Paris Austin and sophomore Matt Bradley — guards who both averaged 34 and 28 minutes a game, respectively, during the 2018-19 season. The coaching staff, however, underwent the most changes this offseason with the hiring of new head coach Mark Fox, as well as new assistants Andrew Francis and Chris Harriman.
Fox inherited possibly one of the worst situations possible. The team finished last in the Pac-12 last year, winning only three of 18 conference games and concluding the season with three of last year’s starters transferring. It is a huge challenge to take a broken team and build it from the ground up to be competitive in a major conference.
“Where I’ve seen a change is they now have an understanding of how hard you have to
work and the investment that you have to make to have any chance to succeed. And that was uncomfortable for them when I came — and now it’s their new normal,” Fox said. “You know that they really have bought into how hard you have to work and the daily commitment that you have to make and so I’ve seen a distinct difference in that.”
The coaching staff also brought a few promising players to fill in the Bears depleted squad. Kareem South, a graduate transfer from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and Lars Thiemann, a freshman from Germany, joined Cal this offseason — both have already showcased some of their skills in their starts for the Bears, including during a 98-75 exhibition win against Saint Martin’s University last Wednesday.
“It was a great experience,” Thiemann said of his first game in blue and gold. “I have been waiting very long for this moment.”
South led the Bears in scoring and minutes with 23 points, and picked up four assists and three steals along the way. Thiemann, a 7’0” center, shot a perfect 4-4 for nine points and blocked four shots — more than every other player on the court combined. They joined returning players Austin, Bradley and sophomore Grant Anticevich to round out the starting lineup.
“Lars has legitimate size to begin with. He’s got really good hands and the ability to score,” said Fox. “I think he’s been off to a really good start. He’s a very mature kid and I think he’s had a very responsible approach every day. That’s one of the reasons I think he continues to get better.”
The exhibition matchup wasn’t completely positive for the inexperienced Cal team. Saint Martin’s was able to go on two 7-0 runs in the first half to shrink the Bears 34-19 lead to 44-41 by the end of the period.
The biggest indicator of the strength of a team is how they are able to adapt to the opponent, and if they can walk out of the locker room to play the second half like it’s a new game.
After some halftime adjustments, Cal did just that — outscoring Saint Martin’s 54-34 in the second period. The Bears shot a spectacular 60.6% from the field, including 46.2% from three in the second half — even limiting themselves to only two turnovers, down from four in the first period.
“I think we just leaned on our coach’s system,” South explained. “He designed plays for us to get guys open and that was indicative through our assists — so I think we were very unselfish and got guys open and knocked down shots.”
While the Bears have an entire season to prove that this team is not just another flicker of light, the first clue will be in Tuesday’s home opener against Pepperdine.