Cal basketball is like “Avengers: Endgame.” Wyking Jones is Thanos, snapping away the joy of Bears fans everywhere with two straight eight-win seasons, the lowest two complete season win total since the 1978 and 1979 campaigns. The voluptuous redheaded Black Widow is coach Mark Fox, who wants fans to return, knowing a brighter future is possible.
“We’re going to need our fans to stand up and break a sweat because this team is going to have to overachieve,” Fox said after the team’s victory over Fresno State. “We need their energy. When you get that it becomes a real advantage for your team and your program.”
Cal fans are Hawkeye. “Don’t do that,” they say. “Don’t give us hope.”
But the Bears are inspiring, promising a return to the days of old, with a packed Haas Pavilion and a team fans want to talk about. And if higher attendance rates and increased excitement is their goal, they’ll need to prove they’re capable of competing with elite teams, and no better opportunity presents itself than their upcoming game against Saint Mary’s College.
The Gaels have started the season hot, boasting a 9-2 record and an average margin of victory of 16.9 points. They are second in the West Coast Conference behind No. 6 Gonzaga, and have won marquee matchups against Wisconsin, Fresno State and then-No. 15 Utah State. Their only losses are a two-point upset against Winthrop and a close matchup against No. 14 Dayton.
The key to their early explosive performances has been efficient long-range shooting; the Gaels rank first in the NCAA in three-point percentage. This will be especially pressing for the Bears, whose poor perimeter defense ranks 265th in opposing three-point percentage.
Saint Mary’s is powered by veterans Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts, who average 19.4 and 14.5 points respectively. Ford, making his return to his local stomping grounds after playing AAU basketball in Oakland, is the WCC’s highest-volume scorer, averaging 6.3 three point attempts a game on a 40% clip. The Bears struggled to contain Fresno State’s New Williams’ outside shooting in their win against the Bulldogs, and could very well be forced to take cover from another three point barrage.
Fitts is no slouch from downtown either, shooting 40% on 4 attempts per game. Yet, it’s not his shooting that should frighten Bears’ fans, but his rebounding. The 6’8” junior forward is pulling down almost 8 boards a game and has posted four double-doubles so far this season. Cal has been outrebounded in two consecutive games and had a staggering -22 rebound differential in its matchup against Duke.
The Bears’ only true big man, 7’0” Lars Thiemann, saw his minutes fall to a season low in Cal’s matchup against Fresno State, and it’s no coincidence that the Bulldogs’ forward Nate Grimes grabbed a near season-high 14 rebounds. Forwards Grant Anticevich and Andre Kelly have been serviceable for the Bears so far, but if this trend continues, the blue and gold could find itself undersized and boxed out for much of its next game.
But don’t count Cal out just yet. While it may take a Dr. Strange 1 in 14,000,605 scenario to overcome the Saint Mary’s juggernaut, the Bears are not without hope. Kareem South has emerged as a legitimate secondary scoring threat to complement Matt Bradley. In his last four games, South averaged 15 points per game compared to his 5.6 average in the three games prior. Cal’s leading scorer Bradley has returned to form after a difficult stretch against San Francisco and Santa Clara, scoring 24 points against Fresno State on 8 of 16 shooting.
Ultimately, if the Bears want to upset the Gaels, it will require not only Bradley and South to step up their game, but the full team to assemble in preparation for its heavyweight opponent.
“We know that (Saint Mary’s) are a very complete team. It’ll be another huge test … We have a long way to go,” Fox said of the upcoming challenge.
The Bears take on the Gaels on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Haas Pavilion.