It’s a cautious time for Berkeley. Cold winter rains make the sidewalks dangerously slick and the roads precariously icy. But the hazards don’t end outside, as inside Haas Pavilion the Bears continue to slip, stumble, and fall through the season in a campaign enveloped by a flurry of tough losses and a blizzard of blunders.
Cal will try to end its losing skid at home Friday against Harvard in the Bears’ final matchup of 2019. The blue and gold have lost two in a row and six of their last eight, bringing their record to a mediocre 6-6.
While nonconference play certainly fell below expectations thus far, perhaps the biggest dagger of disappointment for Cal came in its most recent loss against Boston College. Despite holding a 48-37 lead with 11 minutes left to play in the second period, the Bears were denied a victory as the Eagles snatched the game from the jaws of defeat.
“We just didn’t play 40 minutes,” said Cal men’s basketball head coach Mark Fox after the Bears failed to stifle the comeback. “You can’t play 34 or 36 minutes and win.”
Cal’s inability to play effectively from start to finish has been the story of the season for Cal thus far, with bursts of brilliance being few and far between stretches of scoring droughts and defensive mishaps.
If the blue and gold want to flip the script against the elite Harvard Crimson, they’re going to need to elevate their game from start to finish.
The East Coast program is led by seniors Bryce Aiken and forward Chris Lewis, both aiming to finish their careers with a trip to March Madness, which would bid the Crimson their first tournament entry since 2015.
Aiken, who started the season injured, leads all Harvard players with 16.7 points a game, making him the fifth-best scorer in the Ivy League. Despite his offensive onslaught, the month of December has not been kind to the 6’0” guard, as he averaged 7.3 points per game in three contests this month.
Lewis, by contrast, exploded in the Crimson’s past two matchups, scoring a combined 37 points and pulling down 14 rebounds in Harvard’s victories against George Washington and Howard University. The Bears have struggled to contain similarly skilled forwards such as Fresno State’s Nate Grimes, Boston College’s Jairus Hamilton, and Saint Mary’s Malik Fitts, meaning Cal could bear witness to yet another great performance from Harvard’s all-conference forward.
If there is one saving grace for the blue and gold, it’s that the Crimson will still be without 2018 Ivy League player of the year Seth Towns, who will undergo season ending knee surgery. Towns, who injured his knee in the 2017-18 Ivy League conference title game, will miss his second consecutive season for Harvard.
On the other side of the court, the Bears are still searching for leadership and identity. Cal has yet to find a true big man, circulating minutes between Andre Kelly, Grant Anticevich, and Lars Thiemann. Kelly, who had averaged 32 minutes in the Bears previous two matchups, saw his play time fall to a season low 13 minutes against Boston College, while Thiemann was on the court for 22 minutes, tying his season high of eight points and grabbing a career-best nine rebounds. Cal has yet to find its ideal lineup to establish an inside presence, so expect its experimentation to continue against Harvard.
Offensively, the Bears are still searching for consistency. Cal ranks 300th in scoring, averaging a measly 66.1 points per game. Sophomore guard Matt Bradley continues as the sole bright spot in an offense shrouded by shooting woes, averaging 17.7 points per game — sixth-best in the Pac-12. Kareem South is the only other Bear to average double-digit scoring with 11.3 points per game, but his ability to produce on offense often comes in short spurts, underscoring Cal’s inconsistency to produce buckets across all 40 minutes.
If there is one thing to be said for the Bears’ offense, it’s their ability to shoot from downtown. Cal is a surprising 27th in the NCAA in three point percentage, rattling in long range shots at a 38% clip. Despite their efficiency from the perimeter, the Bears average only 13.75 three-point attempts per game — and if they want to incorporate the outside shot in their pick and roll offense, they’ll need to bump those numbers up.
Ultimately, if the Bears want to put an end to the slippery slope this winter has brought upon them, they’ll need to find stability and consistency. This young Cal roster has shown flashes of brilliance across the board but will need to find a rhythm and style they can stick to for the entire game. With Pac-12 play set to start in January, this upcoming matchup against the Crimson will close the Bears’ nonconference schedule and give the blue and gold the opportunity to start their 2020 campaign on the right foot.
Cal will play Harvard on Sunday at Haas Pavilion.