Cal men’s basketball’s 2021-22 season has been defined by unpredictability.
Many were expecting the squad to be thoroughly, boringly mediocre, and instead it’s been anything but. At times, it’s looked like one of the worst teams in college basketball such as during its demoralizing 10 game losing streak. At other times, it’s appeared to be a competitive college basketball program, such as in its 9-5 start to the season or, most recently, its shocking road sweep of the Oregon schools last weekend to snap the aforementioned skid.
As the Bears return home to Haas Pavilion on Thursday night to face the 15-9 Colorado Buffaloes, the question simply becomes: What version of Cal basketball will make an appearance?
For a long time, it seemed as if the blue and gold’s strong start to the season was a mirage and the double-digit string of losses was closer to reality. When it was announced that Cal’s best player Andre Kelly was out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury shortly after the ninth of 10 increasingly depressing losses (this one an 84-63 beatdown at home to Pac-12 middleweight Washington), discussion surrounding the team became increasingly bleak. Fans wondered how bad things would get and questioned if the Bears would even win another game this season.
Last weekend’s performance, then, was perhaps the most surprising set of games in recent history for the Bears, with a daring road sweep that potentially may save the season –– not to mention, head coach Mark Fox’s job.
It started with a gutsy 63-61 road win over Oregon State, the Bears’ first win away from Haas Pavilion this season, to snap the losing streak. The true shocker was a dominant 78-64 victory two days later against Oregon, a Pac-12 powerhouse with a 9-3 conference record and legitimate NCAA tournament aspirations.
The 3-11 in the Pac-12 Bears entered the game as 14-point underdogs and left with the biggest upset in the conference this season. And they didn’t just win –– they dominated. After falling into an early 12-5 hole, Cal ripped off an incredible 24-0 run to take control of the game and never looked back. It capped off Cal’s first road sweep in eight years and was a massive surprise not just for the blue and gold faithful but for the entire college basketball world.
“No one thought we would win, but it doesn’t matter what other people think,” Fox said. “These young people today performed at a high level to give us a great win. It’s one they can be proud of and one we can build off of.”
With five games left in the season, the question now is where the Bears go from here. Was last weekend’s glimmer of hope simply an aberration or a legitimate momentum builder that Cal can ride going into the Pac-12 tournament in March?
The blue and gold’s first test of this will come Thursday night with Colorado, a strong opponent that will be standing in their way. The Buffs are led by star sophomore forward Jabari Walker, who averages 14.1 points per game and 9 rebounds, but they also boast a well-rounded team overall with four players averaging more than 9 points a game.
Cal’s defense will need to be at its best to contend with a balanced Colorado offense. Luckily for the Bears, strong defense has been a hallmark of their play this season. The bigger challenge may be getting things done on the other end of the court against an active and experienced defensive team in the Buffaloes.
The Bears scored their most points of the season Saturday against Oregon thanks to a dominant performance from graduate transfer guard Jordan Shepherd, who dropped a career-high 33 points in the absence of Kelly. If Shepherd and company can continue their hot scoring against Colorado, Cal should have a chance to be competitive.
No one can know for sure how Cal will come out against Colorado, but this season has proved that fans should expect the unexpected, embrace the Bears’ unpredictability and know that the team can at least keep things interesting.