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Another Lost Week—More Questions Than Answers for Cal Men’s Basketball

Washington 68 - Cal 51

NCAA Basketball: Washington at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

As the longest season of Cal basketball slowly winds down toward its merciful end, and as we bid farewell to a group of seniors we barely got to know, the reality of a 2-14 conference record begins to sink in, and the task turns to taking stock of what we’ve seen on the court, and what we might be able to anticipate in the future.

In the midst of a 5 game losing streak, and after getting swept yet again in what was probably the easiest weekend of the conference season, Saturday’s home finale versus the Washington Huskies was a fitting example of where this team has been, how it has developed, and where it is to close the season.

The Golden Bears came out intense and determined. In the passing lanes and on the boards, they came up with 4 steals in the first 7 minutes, climbed all over the offensive glass, limited Washington’s scoring inside, and held a lead for large portions of the 1st half. When Washington answered by dropping a series of three point jumpers, Cal responded, making 4-8 of their own in the half to head into the locker room tied at 35.

However, the 2nd half brought inevitable disappointment. When Marcus Lee was called for his 4th foul with 13:06 remaining, he joined Kingsley Okoroh, who also had 4, on the bench. The score was 48-45 Washington. Noah Dickerson promptly scored for the Huskies on the next three possessions, while Cal, so reliant on running their offense through the post, could get nothing on the other end. Roman Davis, Grant Anticevich, and Cole Welle all took turns inside, as Coach Wyking Jones tried to buy minutes for his starting bigs.

By the time he re-inserted Okoroh at the 7:48 mark, the lead had ballooned to 57-47 Washington, and the game was effectively over. The closest Cal could get was within 8 the rest of the way.

Final score: Washington 68 - Cal 51.

And so we sit with another loss and reflect on what we’ve learned about this program.

The first, and most important, observation is that this team has figured out how to show up for basketball games. This may seems like a prerequisite for just being here and on scholarship, but I wrote several times at the beginning of the season that learning how to prepare for and play at a high level of intensity and focus is not a given. It’s a skill, and apparently a difficult one at the D1 level for student-athletes who have not had to perform at this level before, on and off the court. Cal did not show up prepared to play against UC Riverside, Wofford, VCU, Chaminade, Central Arkansas, Portland State, USC, UCLA, or Washington State. That’s a lot of compost thrown in the bin.

However, to the credit of the coaching staff and players, in the last 10 games the team has only shown up with one subpar effort -- in Utah on the second half of the toughest road trip in the conference. Throughout this later stretch of basketball we’ve seen the Bears battle on the boards, in the press, in the passing lanes. Or, as Nick put it today:

So about this everything else part. Cal remains the worst team in the conference at making shots (42.7% eFG) and stopping people from making shots (57.7% eFG). Let me repeat that. Cal is the worst in the conference at getting their shots to go in the basket AND the worst at stopping the other team’s shots from going in. A case can be made (although I don’t have the energy to show my work on this one), that a team with a 15% gap in eFG has been fortunate to win even 2 games. Yet this weekend, despite the impossibly heavy weight of the worst shooting gap in major conference history weighing on them, the Bears had two winnable games in front of them. And here’s where I ask myself, as an analyst and a fan: what is our coaching staff doing to get us over the hump? And that leads me to further questions.

  • On Thursday, with :54 left and Cal leading by 1, Coach Jones called a timeout. Cal had the ball. On the ensuing possession Darius threw the ball directly to a WSU defender. Coach Jones explained it as “When Darius threw it, Marcus went away, so it was equally both their fault that we turned the ball over.” Coming out of a timeout, is any part of a turnover the coach’s fault?
  • On the last possession of a tie game, Cal failed to pick up Drick Bernstine in transition, choosing instead to send multiple people to stop the ball on the perimeter. Bernstine’s layup won the game for WSU. Postgame, Coach Jones blamed the loss on a 7 minute stretch of the 1st half when the Bears allowed many such easy baskets. Is it possible to coach a team to stop giving up easy opportunities at the rim? If it happens all game, is it possible to make an adjustment so it doesn’t happen with the game on the line? Is it possible to prepare your team for a defensive scramble situation during a timeout, when there are only 24 seconds remaining in the game? Or is your best answer, “I was hoping there wouldn’t be so much time on the clock,” as coach indicated after the game?
  • After the two point loss, Coach Jones read through the whole box score then said, “I’m looking at the stat sheet and I’m confused.” Is it reasonable to expect a D1 coach to cogently analyze post game statistics without becoming confused? Is it reasonable to expect him to give thoughtful reasons for a loss to a team that had only won two games themselves?
  • In the postgame today, Coach Jones attributed the loss to the foul trouble of Marcus and King, and not having lineups that he was comfortable playing. Why, if our offense is heavily reliant on feeding to a big, but having two bigs on the floor hampers spacing, has our coach insisted on playing both bigs together for most of the conference season? Why has he limited playing time for players like Roman Davis (until recently) and Grant Anticevich, such that he did not have any confidence that they could hold their own in a critical in-game situation? Has there been any reason not to play a deep bench this year? The usual reason to play a short bench is that immediate wins are more important than long term depth of experience. Did that reasoning apply this year?
  • In his postgame radio interview, Coach Jones said the key drought occurred because, with our bigs sitting, Washington was able to concentrate on defending the perimeter. Was there any schematic counter, or were we helpless in the face of this defensive strategy?
  • Louisville, the school Coach Jones was with when they won a national championship, recently had their title vacated for a series of egregious recruiting violations. When asked about this on Thursday, he said he it was “disheartening to see what’s going on and the decision that was made.” When asked today about other recent revelations about recruiting improprieties, and asked, on the postgame radio show to speak to his own values, he responded by expressing sympathy for the coaches involved. He reiterated that in his postgame press conference, and said the focus should be on the players. Does he have any thoughts or feelings about the propriety of rampant rule breaking in college basketball? Does he have any thoughts or feelings about the events that occurred during his tenure at Louisville, other than disheartenment? Has anyone ever asked him about his own knowledge or involvement?
  • Has Wyking Jones ever once, this year, taken any personal responsibility for one of the worst Cal basketball seasons in history? Has he made any coaching mistakes? Or is everything the fault of players and circumstance?

I have not reached, as many others have, a firm conclusion on the future viability of this coaching staff and their long term potential for success. I think it is to Coach Jones and his staff’s great credit that amid a season of continuous setbacks, his players continue to come out game after game and leave everything on the floor. And they are, over time, making less of the terrifying fundamental mistakes that were so comically amateurish at the beginning of the season. There should be credit where credit is due.

But as we head toward year two, more will be expected. And more questions will be asked. The answers will determine his fate, and the fate of this basketball program.