2021 was a year of ups and downs for Cal men’s basketball.
With a series of COVID-19 complications, a last-place finish in the Pac-12 last season and the loss of its leading scorer, Matt Bradley, to the transfer portal in the offseason, the year started off slow. The start of this season, though, perhaps was rock bottom for the Bears: They opened the year with a 2-4 record against a manageable nonconference slate, mixing in blowout losses to good teams with underwhelming defeats against mid-major foes.
However, Cal was able to end 2021 on a high note. Ever since that sluggish start, the Bears have gone 6-1 and are riding an eight-game home winning streak and four-game winning streak overall. The blue and gold will hope to build on this end of year momentum and put the challenges of 2021 behind them. For their first game of 2022, they welcome Arizona State to Haas Pavilion.
One difficulty that the team won’t be able to put behind them in the New Year is the looming strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. It hindered the Bears last year and has already thrown a wrench into their 2022 plans, as the team was initially set to face Stanford on Jan. 2. COVID-19 issues within the Cardinal program resulted in the last minute scheduling switch that now sees Arizona State come to Berkeley. The Sun Devils themselves had their road games against USC and UCLA canceled due to those teams also facing COVID-19 troubles, making this adjustment possible.
COVID-19 has and will continue to challenge the Bears and the rest of the college basketball world. It’s an uncontrollable reality that Cal and its fans will need to get used to for the foreseeable future.
The Bears then should focus on what they can control, which is accepting these uncertainties and using the turn of the calendar as an opportunity to start the next stretch of their schedule strong. Cal has been hot as of late, but nonconference play is now behind it, and the Pac-12 represents an entirely different animal.
Cal will run the gauntlet with an upcoming 18-game schedule solely against its Pac-12 foes that make up one of the best conferences in college basketball. Nothing will come easy and every win will be hard-fought. It certainly got the better of the Bears last year, as a brutal 3-17 record in conference led to their basement finish.
If Cal wants this year to be different, a win in this opening matchup against Arizona State would certainly be a good place to start. In the short term, the Bears are perhaps fortunate to be facing the 5-7 Sun Devils at home, rather than the once-scheduled game against 8-4 Stanford on the road.
It’s a more winnable game, but certainly not an easy one. The Sun Devils have won seven straight against the Bears and are a solid road team who can perform in the clutch. They’ve been hot as of late too, with a 3-1 record in their last four games, including an impressive win over Oregon.
Arizona State is led by a talented trio who each average double digits in scoring: sophomore guard DJ Horne, graduate forward Lawrence Kimani and sophomore forward Marcus Bagley, who is the brother of NBA player Marvin Bagley III. Shutting down these three will be key if the Bears hope to escape with a victory.
Cal has ridden rock-solid defense and slow paced yet serviceable offense to secure the majority of its victories so far. Balanced scoring, a deep bench, strong defensive intensity and rebounding have kept the Bears competitive in nonconference play. For the Bears to succeed against Pac-12 opponents, they’ll need to bring all of these things to the next level.
“Our defense has been more consistent and it’s going to need to be great in league play,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “We have to keep growing offensively, and if we can do that, then we’ll give ourselves a chance to scratch out some wins.”
The Bears will have an opportunity Sunday to do just that. Fans will get their first glimpse of whether the challenges of 2021 will continue to haunt the blue and gold in 2022, or whether the New Year will bring new opportunities for a Cal team to turn the corner.
Benjamin Coleman covers men’s basketball and is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].