Bears ride 5-game losing streak amid search for cohesion

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Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

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Cal men’s basketball has delivered a tale of two teams throughout its 2020-21 campaign thus far. With the Bears’ leading scorer, junior guard Matt Bradley, sidelined for an extended portion of the season, the team turned to new leaders in forwards Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich, as well as point guard Joel Brown. Now that Bradley is back, he has taken the reins once again, driving the blue and gold’s offensive scheme.

The only issue? Getting them all — or at least more than two — to play well at the same time.

When Bradley returned, the hope was that those who stepped up in his absence would continue their solid play, emerging as stellar complements to his scoring ability. But as it stands now, the Bears have only once logged more than two players in double-digit scoring since Bradley returned. That performance still resulted in an 8-point loss to USC.

In each of the three games Bradley has started since coming back to the court, however, only he and one other teammate (Kelly twice and Brown once) have been able to bump their scoring into the double digits. This wouldn’t be so notable if it weren’t for a large offensive deficiency beyond these two players — the most another player has offered in support was 7 points.

It’s simple math. If two players are scoring in the double digits and the rest score low in the single digits, Cal will always have a tough time logging more than 60 points. In fact, the blue and gold have averaged a mere 59.6 points per game over their last five losses — five losses that came in as many games. Pair this with some poor defensive performances recently, and fans should be left with no wonder as to why the Bears have posted an abysmal 2-11 record in Pac-12 play.

So as the blue and gold take their 1-8 road record to Palo Alto to take on a Stanford squad that just dusted them by 15 points Thursday, head coach Mark Fox and the Bears know they need to sharpen up their defensive efforts, which dropped them to a point of no return last game. Yet in a postgame press conference after the home loss to the Cardinal, Fox said a “talent deficiency” had been exposed in his team.

In reality, though, there isn’t a talent deficiency at all. The team sports at least five different Bears who have shown prowess and an ability to lead with confidence this season. The issue is not a lack of talent overall; it’s an inability to weave that talent into a seamless whole.

To say that each member of the team can match Bradley’s play would be entirely misleading. He is an obvious standout and has been since he arrived in Berkeley. But after injuries to both ankles, Bradley simply cannot carry the weight of his team anymore, both literally and figuratively.

And he doesn’t need to. The Bears may not be bursting at the seams with NBA-bound talent, but they have a solid team with players who individually displayed improvement in Bradley’s absence. There is not a talent deficiency, as Fox suggests. There is a cohesion deficiency.

Unfortunately for the Haas Pavilion faithful, it may be awhile until Cal can connect the dots. It may not happen this season. Of course, with the Bears heading into rival territory Sunday, anything is possible. But likely, the best that fans can expect is a step in the right direction — a step forward that always seems to be preceded by two steps back.

Ethan Waters covers men’s basketball, men’s golf and women’s golf. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ewate1.