Cal men’s basketball returns to court for first time since March

Photo of Men's basketball from February 2020
Josh Kahen/File

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After a seven-month hiatus, Cal men’s basketball started full practices this week after being cleared by health officials. The resumption of indoor practices without restrictions comes after the Pac-12 reversed its initial decision to delay the season until at least Jan. 1 and aligned the season start date with that of the rest of the NCAA, Nov. 25.

“I know the season will be vastly different this year than any one we’ve seen before, and the last seven months have been vastly different than any of us imagined, but we’re thankful to be here today,” said head coach Mark Fox. “We’re excited about having the opportunity to play our game and have a season in the midst of great disruption.”

The Bears have been practicing outdoors using the tennis facilities and borrowing a batting cage to use as a weightlifting room. The outdoor practices had a strict no-contact rule and didn’t even use a ball or hoop at first.

“Once we got baskets, we had mornings that were so cold you could see your breath, we had afternoon groups where guys were throwing on sunscreen, we had wind, we had smoke, we had days we had to cancel, we had numerous obstacles outside, but to be honest, our team and these young people have had a really resilient approach,” Fox said. “We tried to deal with the challenges with a grateful heart because we knew a lot of people made sacrifices for us.”

The first challenge Cal faced was getting the team together in one place. With several players from Canada and one from Germany, the team was dependent on international travel restrictions allowing everyone to travel to Berkeley. Before the student-athletes arrived on campus, they were required to submit an online screening, and once they arrived, they were subject to a temperature check. Since then, they have relied on daily COVID-19 testing and received the results within hours. No one has opted out of the season at this time.

Now that the team can return to full five-on-five practices, coaching staff members say the biggest challenge will be conditioning. The players need to readjust to playing basketball with defense, namely taking contact and landing safely on the indoor surface.

“We have a decent level of conditioning — I don’t think we’re anywhere near game shape. I do think we’re in a position physically where hopefully we can begin to progress and handle the cardiovascular challenge of playing our game,” Fox said. “You just can’t go from zero to 100; we’re going to have to slowly introduce contact and the ability to respond to contact, to take contact in the air and still land safely. There’s a lot of things they haven’t done in several months.”

Another challenge the Bears face is building the chemistry within the team. Freshman Monty Bowser was one of the first to arrive on campus and has yet to be in a gym with star junior guard Matt Bradley. Fellow freshman Jalen Celestine was one of the last players to arrive.

The addition of several transfer students further complicates the situation. Sophomore transfer Jarred Hyder is still waiting on an eligibility waiver from the NCAA. Meanwhile, graduate transfers Makale Foreman and Ryan Betley are hoping to have an immediate impact on the team despite the unusual circumstances.

“We do have some guys who have come in with experience and the ability to shoot the ball. Makale has really, I think, transitioned well; he has the ability to shoot, and he’s got a lot of experience, and he’s a good ball-screen player,” Fox said. “These kids can make three-point shots. We wanted to improve our three-point shooting through our recruiting last spring.”

As for the schedule this winter, much of it is still up in the air. Because of the shifting start date of the season, Cal lost its spot for the midseason tournament in Kansas City and needs to find some alternative games. With so many teams wanting to switch dates and having to confirm testing procedures and safety benchmarks, the non-conference schedule has been difficult to pin down.

“Hopefully before November we can have a nonconference schedule in place, but I’ll tell you there’s a lot of moving parts,” Fox said. “It’s likely and possible that we could play a game and still not know the back end of our schedule.”

Fox said he has been in frequent contact with the Pac-12 and other head coaches. Other teams in the league have been practicing as soon as they were cleared, meaning some teams have been having full practices all summer. The Bears have just longer than a month of practices before the official start date to get everyone game-ready.

“Our team, at this point — there’s no denying that we’re going to be behind today,” Fox said. “Will we be able to catch all the way up? Well, that’s our plan.”

Trilok Reddy covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].