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Cal Men’s Basketball Season is upon us

The Bears are almost guaranteed to improve . . . right?

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Media Day D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball season is here! On Friday night the Golden Bears will open their season against the Yale Bulldogs in China, airing at 8:00 pm on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean on ESPNU.

CGB (and yours truly!) have been woefully behind on season preview material, in part because producing football content has been kinda fun lately, and in part because it’s just hard to drum up a ton of enthusiasm for men’s basketball this season. So let’s dive in, with no time for sugarcoating things.

The 2017-18 Cal men’s basketball team was probably the worst team in Cal’s modern history, depending on when you think ‘modern history’ begins. Objectively, the 17-18 Bears had the worst overall non-sanctioned win percentage since 1978-79 and their worst non-sanctioned conference record since *checks notes* Pete Newell in 1954-55?!

Interestingly, 78-79 and 54-55 were also both the first years of new head coaches. Transitions are hard! Will Wyking Jones go the route of Pete Newell and win an NCAA title in year 5? Or will he coach 7 years and not once manage a winning conference record, a la Dick Kutchen? I’m going to jump out on an incredibly sturdy limb and suggest that neither of those things are especially likely to happen.

Because last year was so historically miserable, and because this year’s roster is still so remarkably young – no seniors and just two scholarship juniors – expectations will be understandably muted.

What are those expectations, exactly? Improving on last season’s 8 total wins and 2 Pac-12 wins is an obvious a start, but because last year’s team was so non-competitive, one might credibly argue that simply staying close to peer competition might constitute meaningful improvement. After all, 13 of Cal’s 17 Pac-12 losses came by double digits, with an average margin of defeat of 16 points.

Of primary concern was an offense that was wildly turnover prone and one of the worst shooting teams in conference history. The addition of transfer point guard Paris Austin should almost by default improve Cal’s turnover issues, but the challenge of hitting shots may be a tougher nut to crack. In two years at Boise State Austin was a reasonable distributor and flashed potentially impressive skills attacking the basket as a slasher/foul drawer . . . but struggled badly to hit jumpers.

How much can one veteran addition change the offense? Ken Pomeroy’s pre-season projections expect Cal’s offense to sit at around the 200th most efficient in the country, which would mean that Cal would be competing with teams like Rutgers and Georgia Tech to avoid the ignominy of having the worst power conference offense in the nation.

Beyond Austin, the core of Cal’s roster will be a trio of sophomores who received a crash course in major conference basketball as freshman last year. Justice Sueing, Juhwan Harris-Dyson, and Darius McNeill were forced to play major minutes early, and often asked to do things that weren’t necessarily their primary skill sets. Ideally Cal could have broken in McNeill as a 15 minutes/game back up shooting guard, or Harris-Dyson as an energy defender off the bench. But Cal needed minutes and the hope now is that their baptism by fire will pay dividends in year two.

Meanwhile, considering the dire circumstances, Wyking Jones brought in a decent recruiting class ranked ~7-9 in the Pac-12. Just like last year’s class, this group will be asked to contribute immediately for lack of veteran options. Matt Bradley, Andre Kelly, Connor Vanover, and Jacobi Gordon will all likely get opportunities to contribute right away, and one or two of them will probably end up being 30+ minutes/night level contributors.

Cal got occasional brief bench minutes last year from now-junior Roman Davis and now-sophomore Grant Anticevich. On a team that isn’t especially deep in the front court and with an unsettled rotation, both will likely have the opportunity to earn their way into the rotation as well.

Jules Erving, Jacob Orender, David Serge, Blake Welle, and James Zhao are available as walk-on contributors.

That’s 10 scholarship players competing for rotation minutes, which one might note is three less than the 13 player maximum. Two of those spots are vacant because of the ‘departures’ of Deschon Winston and Austin McCullough, who departed too late in the recruiting process for Cal to replace them. I don’t know if the 3rd empty scholarship slot is because Cal whiffed on Jordan Brown and didn’t have a back-up plan, or because Cal whiffed on Jordan Brown and didn’t want to reach for a recruit that the coaching staff would have to cut in a year anyway. More on that below.

This is the group that will start the 2018-19 journey way over in Shanghai. And as it turns out, we might get some meaningful data very soon.

That’s because the Yale Bulldogs are probably the favorites in this game. The Bulldogs only lost one periphery contributor off of a team that finished 3rd place in the Ivy League, and because of their returning continuity they are expected to play a role in the race for first place in the conference. They’re not world beaters, but they’re a veteran, solid basketball team, and if the typical projection systems are right, they’re favorites by a few points and we should all go in expecting a close game.

If the Bears emerge with a win, that would be a good early season indication that Cal might be a bit ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, when your rotation might include up to 8 underclassmen and you’re facing a team with four upperclassmen starting, maybe a loss doesn’t have to be some sort of final statement about where the season might end up. But it would be an early indication that this team might need some time to gain experience and cohesion.

If nothing else it should be interesting, and that’s often not the case for non-conference games.

* * *

And now, a segue into some CGB meta commentary that you’re welcome to ignore if you (reasonably) find this sort of thing boring:

I have publicly put out that I will be refusing to monetarily support Cal men’s basketball, which for a person like me essentially means I won’t be buying tickets to games. Why? Because Wyking Jones cut Deschon Winston and Austin McCullough over the off-season. Cutting two players that you recruited after just one year on the team for purely on-court performance/talent reasons is as clear a demonstration that I have no interest in supporting you as a head coach. You can decide for yourself if it’s a bigger moral issue (jerking around the lives of 18 year olds who you convinced to play basketball for you) or a coaching competence issue (realizing that you royally screwed up two of your own scholarship slots in less than a year) but for me that’s a clear deal breaker. It’s an obvious failure of the principles outlined by former Cal basketball players Martin Smith and Solomon Hughes in a special contribution to this very website.

There are other, murkier, he-said she-said roster management issues that are concerning but perhaps not damning for lack of a clear narrative, but the issues above are by themselves enough for me to lose faith in the current regime.

A cynic might argue that A) I’m taking this stance more in response to last year’s awful win-loss record or B) what happened last year isn’t particularly unusual behavior from any major revenue coach. I reject that first argument because I’ve never taken this stance towards any prior Cal team despite a variety of very bad coaches, teams, and seasons.

The second argument is squishier. Simply by following revenue college sports in any capacity you’re implicitly involved in an industry that requires some level of moral compromise. To the extent that our voices on this website matter we try to advocate for reform that would improve some of these issues. Maybe you disagree with where I’m drawing my moral line, and I think reasonable people can quibble on the edges. Agree or disagree, at least you know where I stand.

Why am I telling you this? I will continue to write about this year’s team, and I will strive to be objective and fair. You, dear reader, deserve to know my stance towards this team. You can decide for yourself as the season goes along whether or not I am being fair towards the coaching staff, or if my bias, such as it is, is showing.

At the end of the day I’ll still be rooting hard for Cal, and hoping that the current roster makes the most out of their talent and their Cal experience. I don’t currently have faith in the current coaching staff to accomplish those things. I hope I’m wrong.