Lightning struck in the college basketball world this Wednesday: Louisville won its first game of the season in a 94-83 victory over Western Kentucky.
Now that the Cardinals have defected from the exclusive club of winless Division I teams, it’s not a club anymore — it’s just Cal. The 0-11 Bears have officially etched themselves into the college basketball history books with the worst start ever to a season by a major conference team.
Such inauspicious beginnings are no accident. Cal boasts field goal percentage, rebounding and turnover metrics that are among the nation’s worst. Most troubling of all is its scoring: The Bears score 57.6 points per game, ranking 357 out of 363 Division I teams. The blue and gold have been substandard in every facet of their game to start this season.
Now, Cal is staring down the barrel of another loss that could expand its streak to 12, a dozen. The Bears will head down to the South Bay on Sunday to take on Santa Clara.
This will be a familiar type of game for Cal. The 9-3 Broncos have started the season strong but have won exclusively against non-Power 5 teams. But, although its strength of schedule may be less impressive than Cal’s, Santa Clara knows how to do some things that Cal doesn’t: score the basketball and win games.
The Broncos’ star sophomore guard Brandin Podziemski has almost single-handedly willed his team to wins this season. He is a physical nightmare for defenders and a pugnacious presence down low — standing at just 6’5”, Podziemski leads the team in scoring and assists. He will be a handful for Cal, which has failed to shut down the most serious opposition scoring threats all season.
The Bears, meanwhile, will be virtually unchanged from their prior loss to Butler. Junior guard Devin Askew, Cal’s leading scorer and only offensive spark plug, has recovered from COVID-19 and was able to participate in the 82-58 pounding against the Bulldogs.
He will look to command the Bears’ offense against Santa Clara, but this will not be enough if he does not get help from his teammates. Junior forward Grant Newell, senior center Lars Thiemann and senior forward Kuany Kuany all cropped up to offer scoring assistance, but they can never all catch a hot hand in the same game. Cal’s scoring troubles have been an insurmountable shortfall this season.
“It’s pretty tough, but it can’t rain forever,” Askew said. “We’re going to get around the corner and get through this, but it’s just going to take a lot of work and a lot of trust with everybody in our organization.”
Still, little of Cal’s losing recipe is set to change soon. Junior guard Jalen Celestine, Cal’s highest returning scorer, and transfer guard DeJuan Clayton were expected to take on important scoring roles, but they have missed the opening of the season due to injury. Head coach Mark Fox has mentioned many times how they are sorely missed offensive weapons, and they are not expected to play against Santa Clara.
A team devoid of inspiration and not set to look too different on Sunday, Cal may have to look to Louisville’s win this week as its miraculous glimmer of hope. Will the Cardinals’ victory be instructive proof that the foreign concept of a win is actually within reach, or will Cal continue to trailblaze its way through the most historic of poor seasons? The stakes, oddly, feel high.