A season of progress: Bears vastly improve in 2019-2020 season

Addison Briggs/Staff

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Success doesn’t always mean winning the national championship, being the best team in the conference or even having a winning record. Sometimes success just means improvement, and, despite a new head coach in Mark Fox and a plethora of roster changes, this season was filled with improvement.

Last season, Cal finished with a terrible 8-23 record. The blue and gold were an even worse 8-24 the year before. Changes had to happen and changes were made, as former head coach Wyking Jones was fired March 24, 2019, just 11 days after the Bears were eliminated in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.

Five days after the firing of Jones, Cal would bring in Fox, who was the head coach at Georgia before joining the Bears. A change of direction was what Cal needed, and the move has already paid off as the blue and gold improved to 14-18, nearly doubling their win total from last season.

Cal started its campaign hot, winning its first four games before ultimately falling to then-No. 1 Duke. The Bears looked to be a new team in 2020, but they finished nonconference play just below .500 at 6-7 after traveling around the United States for games.

Fans had a reason to actually be optimistic for Pac-12 games this year. Even though it never looked like Cal would be a power team in the conference, the Bears showed they had more to prove at the end of their nonconference schedule.

Cal would go on to finish at 10th in the Pac-12. It was not a terrific finish by many standards, but it still marked a step in the right direction compared to last season. After going 3-15 in the Pac-12 just a year ago, Fox helped the Bears bring in four more wins as Cal attained a 7-11 conference record this season.

The blue and gold had some standout performances against some of the best teams in the nation. The Bears had one of their most solid outings of the season in a loss to then-No. 11 Oregon and even managed to pull off an upset against a ranked opponent, defeating then-No. 21 Colorado by 16 points. Cal split its regular-season matchups with Stanford 1-1 and even swept Washington State. The season showed this team could fight, and with such a young team, Cal will continue to improve.

It was a season full of developing young players, as freshmen Joel Brown, Lars Thiemann, Kuany Kuany and D.J. Thorpe consistently saw minutes. Brown may even see himself consistently in the starting point guard position next season as senior Paris Austin is graduating. Thorpe and Kuany will likely see an increase in playtime as well.

Sophomore Matt Bradley was the Bears’ standout player, averaging a team-high 17.5 points per game and shooting a team-high 86.8% from the free-throw line, which was also second in the Pac-12. He added 4.9 rebounds per game and earned himself All-Pac-12 second team honors.

It was a year in which Cal couldn’t score but still managed to stay competitive. The blue and gold finished 330th in the nation in points per game but could defend just about anyone. The Bears couldn’t win outside of Haas Pavilion (2-13) but they were an entirely different team when at home (12-5).

It was a season of close wins and close losses, upsets and upset fans and, ultimately, a season cut short. Cal’s final game was a spirited 63-51 victory over rival Stanford in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament — the Bears’ first victory in the tournament in three years.

Cal was slated to play UCLA in the second round, to whom the Bears lost 50-40 in January, their only matchup with the Bruins this season. On March 12, the season was put to a sudden end, as the Pac-12 announced that all competitions, including the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament, would be canceled indefinitely due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus. Soon after, the NCAA tournament would be canceled as well, effectively ending the 2019-2020 season.

It’s difficult to say how things would have turned out if Cal and the rest of the NCAA had been able to finish the season. This finish leaves fans and players hanging on the edge of a cliff with no clear resolution, but the right call was made for the safety of everyone. Before we know it, basketball will be back.

Next season should be one for even more improvement, as Austin and Kareem South are the only graduating Cal players to receive significant minutes in the 2019-2020 season. Fans can be optimistic about the coming years as Bradley, Grant Anticevich and Andre Kelly are sure to show their growing experience and chemistry, while the freshman players will step up to an increased role. And, ultimately, Fox is no longer joining a team with unfamiliar faces — he’s home with his team in Berkeley.

Jack Whaley covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @_jackdouglas_.