Most consider March Madness to be the largest basketball casualty of the year, but Cal men’s basketball may feel differently, as its season was cut short because of coronavirus concerns just after it upset Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament. Now, after the Pac-12’s recent announcement, the Bears will not get to address their unfinished business until at least Jan. 1, 2021.
“Beginning with the news in March when our season ended suddenly, our priority has always been the safety and well-being of the young people we are fortunate to partner with each day,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “For months, I have sat on the league’s committee to devise a safe plan to return to the court.”
Despite the abbreviated ending to last season, 2020 was a resounding success for the program. Cal started the year with a new coaching staff and had to deal with the wake of two starters transferring last offseason. Somehow, Fox and the Bears pulled it together and ended the regular season fighting for eighth place in the Pac-12 — not to forget about upsetting the Cardinal in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
Much of that success, however, came with the help of Paris Austin and Kareem South — who are both out of eligibility. Unfortunately, when Cal returns to the court, it will be without Austin and South, but five new players who can help the Bears make an impact in 2021 will be joining the team.
Among the new players are two freshmen, Monty Bowser and Jalen Celestine, who signed last fall. Celestine is a 6’6” guard from Long Island, New York, who was named to the New York State Sportswriters Association all-state team and has experience in the Amateur Athletic Union and Elite Youth Basketball League circuits. From the opposite side of the country, 6’5” forward Bowser attended Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland — the same high school as Austin and former Cal star Ivan Rabb. Bowser was named to the 2018-19 San Francisco Chronicle All-Metro and the all-Bay Area News Group honorable mention teams and has been upgraded to a four-star recruit since his commitment last October.
Fox has shown that he isn’t afraid to give big minutes to, or even start, young players. Joel Brown, a freshman guard last season, started more than half of the Bears’ games, and while he did not put up huge numbers, he will likely play an important role in replacing Austin’s minutes this season. The addition of Celestine and other transfer guards is another step toward filling the gaps left by Austin and South. Bowser can also help returning forwards Grant Anticevich and Andre Kelly, who played vital roles for Cal last year but struggled to find their rhythm in some cases, especially considering that forward Jacobi Gordon transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette this summer.
The Bears also snatched three transfer guards to bring much-needed experience to a team that seems to be constantly losing players to transfers. Sophomore guard Jarred Hyder announced his commitment to Cal in April after a freshman season averaging 9.1 points and 3.1 assists for Fresno State. His three assists per game is more than any Cal player last season had, and he can work as a distributor to take pressure off of leading scorer Matt Bradley.
Shifting the defense’s focus away from Bradley will likely be one of the Bears’ goals next season. There were many times last year when it appeared Bradley was the only scoring option for Cal and bore the brunt of the defense’s efforts.
One way to do that is with perimeter shooting and transfer guards Ryan Betley from Penn and Makale Foreman from Stony Brook, who are both excellent 3-point shooters. They shot 38.3% and 36.3%, respectively, from beyond the arc in their careers, which is a significant boost for the Bears, who ranked 342nd nationally in made threes last year.
At a time when the entire season is in question and there are still big uncertainties about next year, Cal has made serious offseason additions and is primed to pick up its upward swing right where it left off.
“Our young men have collectively handled the entire pandemic with poise,” Fox said. “We will continue to focus on a plan to be ready when we return.”