Cal men’s basketball exhibited growth this season, growth that should extend far into the future. The Daily Californian’s beat writers discuss the 2019-2020 campaign and the years to come.
This was Mark Fox’s first year as head coach. Given not only the several key veterans that transferred and the midseason issues with Jacobi Gordon and D.J. Thorpe, but also the poor road and mediocre conference records, how do you evaluate his job in year one?
Jack Whaley: It’s too early to be extremely optimistic and say coach Fox is exactly what the Cal program was missing, but he’s indisputably a better coach for the Bears than Wyking Jones was, already. It’s easy to look at the 2-13 record away from home and think of it as an eye-catching problem, but Cal’s 12-5 record at home stands out almost just as much to me. It’s a young team — of course it’s going to struggle on the road, but an improvement from eight to 14 wins with debatably a worse roster on paper is something that can’t be overlooked. If I were giving a letter grade, I’d give coach Fox a B- in his first season at Cal.
Trilok Reddy: Fox certainly coached this group to some of the best basketball it is capable of playing. Despite the transfers and injuries that limited Fox’s options, the result of the season is definitely a positive one for Cal fans. Of course, there are other factors like recruiting and long-term adjustments that are crucial for head coaches to be successful, but Fox was hired to put out the dumpster fire of Cal men’s basketball and he did that in his first season.
Michael Brust: Let me set the picture. It’s 2019. Jones just wrapped up his second season at Cal, winning an absolutely abysmal eight games for the second season in a row. Not only are the Bears the laughingstock of the Pac-12, they’re the laughingstock of Division I basketball. Compare that to this season, when Cal has an upset victory in the Pac-12 tournament. Haas is one of the most difficult places for teams to win at in the conference, and for the first time in a long time, the blue and gold faithful have something to be excited about. Fox rallied the troops down key artillery, and the jump to a 14-win team is huge. An A-grade performance if I’ve ever seen one.
What do you think the ceiling is for the Bears next season? The floor?
JW: It can fluctuate with the recruiting class that Fox brings in, but we will see another improved season. I’m going to put the floor at 14 wins like Cal had this year. This would be the worst-case scenario, that the team’s returning players show little to no progress and that the loss of Paris Austin and Kareem South hurt a lot more than anticipated. The ceiling for Cal is 20 wins and a placement in the top half of the Pac-12 standings. Matt Bradley is back and will be as good as ever, Thorpe and Kuany Kuany got minutes late in the season and should show huge improvements next season and coach Fox seems to finally be growing more comfortable in Berkeley and understanding the guys he’s working with. I don’t think Cal has Pac-12 title potential, but maybe, and this is a big maybe, the Bears can break 20 wins and make the NCAA tournament.
TR: The loss of Austin and South will be a blow to an already shallow team, but the addition of Monty Bowser and Jalen Celestine is a good start toward rebuilding the team. With another year of experience for the current players under coach Fox’s system, Cal will be in good shape next year. If the Bears perform well in their nonconference schedule next year, I don’t think 20 wins is unreasonable. If some of the games don’t swing their way and no one steps up to fill the void Austin left, then they might end up with 14 wins like this season or slightly decline to 12 or 13 wins.
MB: Realistically, it comes down to whether or not the offseason can be a time for fruitful growth for the Bears. Of Cal’s 14 victories, 10 of them were decided by 9 or less points, with seven being decided by 6 points or less. The wins were close, meaning that a different bounce of the ball or a poorly timed foul call could have very well dashed many of the victories the blue and gold nabbed this season. The floor is low: 10-12 wins is a very real possibility. But if the team can improve on its long-range shooting, if Joel Brown can grow as a decision maker and floor general and if players such as Thorpe and Kuany can develop into solid role players, 20 wins is on the table. The Pac-12, while better than ever before, is losing key players in Payton Pritchard, Tres Tinkle, Isaiah Stewart and Onyeka Okongwu, so there is room for Cal to nab wins against marquee opponents like Oregon and USC. This offseason will be pivotal for the blue and gold moving forward.
Which Cal game did you enjoy watching the most this season?
JW: Cal’s win over Colorado in the two sides’ second meeting of the season. The game seemed like it was one in which coach Fox was willing to try out some new things. With the season coming to an end soon and the Bears sitting at 11-16, freshmen Thorpe and Kuany got their first career starts. The game turned out to be maybe Cal’s best-played game all year, as the Bears routed the then-No. 21 Buffaloes 76-62. Bradley tied his career high with 26, South added 19 and Austin 12, and Cal shot an outstanding 45% from deep and had 21 points off of turnovers. The game was fun to watch and the fact that the Buffaloes were ranked made it that much sweeter for the Bears.
TR: The home win over Stanford was by far the best experience of the year. Haas Pavilion was packed with a season-high 9,000 fans and the environment could have rivaled that of any big-name basketball school. It might not have been the flashiest game for Cal, but it was a close game at every turn and the Bears proved they could beat some of the better teams in the conference by knocking off the Cardinal from the top spot.
MB: Cal’s upset over Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament was the most exciting game to watch this season. From start to finish, the Cardinal were outplayed by the Bears, and it was the most complete game to date. No one had picked Cal to be anything but the 12th seed going into the season, and no one believed in the blue and gold’s ability to upset Stanford. Yet despite the odds and the team’s historically poor performance away from Haas Pavilion, Fox and company solidified that this season was the start of a new era for the Bears. It doesn’t get better than that for fans.
It has been a long couple of years for Cal. How did this season compare to your expectations for the Bears at the beginning of the campaign?
JW: It was what I expected. With a new head coach and some new key players (Kuany, Thorpe and South) joining the roster, I expected an improved record. I anticipated that Cal would improve to double-digit wins for the first time in a while. Fox and the new team wearing blue and gold maybe even exceeded my expectations with their 14 wins. I also had faith in one win in the Pac-12 tournament, which is what the Bears got before the season was cut short. Overall, it isn’t going to be an entirely memorable season for Cal fans, but the improvement is something that can’t be taken for granted.
TR: In the Pac-12 preseason media poll, Cal was picked to finish last in the conference and I didn’t think it was too far off. To be fighting for the eighth seed in the last game and to upset Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament certainly exceeded expectations. Bradley grew into a leader in the conference and Austin gave it his all in his senior season, which was beautiful to watch all year long.
MB: I expected less. This team was small in almost every position, lacked a true facilitator, was coming off an atrocious season defensively and, most importantly, lacked veterans and star power. And while a lot of those issues are still true — Cal has no distributor, is still very small compared to the elite teams in the NCAA and has only a second-team All Pac-12 player rather than a solidified star — the Bears fought anyway. The games were ugly, old-school brawls, but at the end of the day, the blue and gold walked away from their 2019-2020 season with 14 victories. Cal proved to the world that this team is different, and looking forward, fans should be prepared to watch a team enter the foray of elite college basketball programs.