For four years, Cal men’s basketball has been the laughing stock of the Pac-12 conference. It has a combined record of 15-74 in conference play during that time and has finished in last place three out of the past four seasons.
To start the year, it appeared that this season would be no different. After a tumultuous off-season where Cal lost its leading scorer, Matt Bradley, to the transfer portal, the team was pegged to finish last in the Pac-12 preseason media poll. In its first two contests, it fell to mid-major foes.
But Thursday night, the Bears showed that, in 2021, things may have changed. Against Oregon State, Cal won its first Pac-12 opener since 2017 with a decisive score of 73-61, proving it can compete in the “conference of champions”.
After the rocky start to the season, Cal seems to have flipped a switch as of late, with four straight victories at home, including knocking off a previously undefeated Fresno State. Its win over Oregon State, though, was by far its most complete performance of the year.
It is true that the Beavers aren’t quite what they were last year. But still, the Bears knocked off a team that returned a lot of its talent from a 2020-21 squad who won the Pac-12 tournament and made a miracle run to the Elite Eight in March Madness. Oregon State was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12, so securing a victory over it is certainly an encouraging start if Cal hopes to have more success in its upcoming conference matchups.
“We’re an improved team,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “This is the best team that I’ve had since I’ve come here. We’ve improved in a lot of ways.”
The Bears were led by the dynamic duo of Andre Kelly and Jordan Shepherd, who each put in stellar all-around performances to secure victory for the blue and gold.
Shepherd, a graduate transfer guard, led the Bears in scoring with 25 points on the night –– though what was perhaps equally as impressive were the eight rebounds that he contributed. Shepherd came through with several key baskets in the clutch and went 3-4 from 3-point range.
“He’s a great player and a hard person to match up with because he can score it himself, and he’s also a great passer,” Kelly said. “He’s hard to contain, and it really opens everything up for everybody else.”
Not to be outdone, Kelly, a senior forward, had a stellar game of his own. He’s quickly turning into a double-double machine, and recorded his fourth of the season with a 20 point, 13 rebound game. Kelly did it all on hyper-efficient 8-11 shooting and dominated the paint on both ends of the floor. His performance helped the Bears comfortably win the rebounding battle 42-24 over the Beavers –– a key determining factor in the game.
“We’re getting amazing performances from Dre (Kelly), and we’re getting what we see every day,” Shepherd said. “We know Dre can do this, he’s capable of this every night. It’s not surprising to us, that’s who he is.”
Senior forward Warith Alatishe led Oregon State on the night with a solid 21-point, eight-rebound performance, but he didn’t find much support from his fellow Beavers. The Bears were able to get multiple players involved –– outside of Kelly and Shepherd, senior forward Grant Anticevich also contributed 12 points. That was perhaps the difference in this game and helped Cal withstand pushes from Oregon State.
After starting the game hot and jumping out to a 13-point lead in the first half, the Bears faltered by the end of the period after surrendering a 12-0 run. At the break, their lead was cut to just one point. Cal teams of the past may have wilted when faced with this type of adversity. Instead, the blue and gold responded with a 12-1 run of their own to start the second half, opening up a lead they never surrendered.
“It’s a game of runs and being older and more mature definitely helps because you’re able to play through those runs and keep going,” Kelly said.
The next step will be ensuring those scoreless stretches don’t happen at all, but being able to respond so strongly to one is a good start. The game as a whole was a strong effort, but with 19 more conference games to go, the Bears cannot get ahead of themselves. Still, if they can put in more performances like the one they had Thursday night, continued success –– or at least improvement on the last few years of futility –– may be in store.