Let’s get grim reality out of the way first: Cal men’s basketball is coming off of the worst two year stretch in program history. Hope for success this year, however that might defined, is low.
But here’s the critical distinction: Hope is not dead.
Watching Cal basketball last year, I experienced something I hadn’t ever really gone through as an adult fan – I had zero hope of any meaningful progress or success. Sure, I knew that Cal might win a random game here or there. But in terms of actual movement towards modest goals like a .500 conference record or the fringe of NCAA bubble discussion . . . under the prior regime, I had given up any chance that it could possibly happen. Whenever I saw individual flashes of talent from one of Cal’s players, I internally assumed that those skills would be wasted, if that player even decided to remain in Berkeley and not transfer. Cal basketball, as a competitive Pac-12 program, functionally did not exist.
No, we have some hope this year. To be clear, the ceiling of hope is still very low. If I tried to imagine some sort of barely-plausible, far-end-of-the-bell-curve scenario of success for this season, it might peak with a push towards Pac-12 respectability and sitting on the NIT bubble late in the year. Kenpom preseason projections say that Cal is likely to finish the season 10-20 (5-13). Expectations are low, and there are many good reasons why.
But Mark Fox is a different coach than Wyking Jones, and that change by itself is reason enough to hope for something better. True, ‘better’ might just mean not losing to a team with a Kenpom rating of 200+ (WE’RE COMING FOR YOU, UC DAVIS), and not regularly getting blown out. But when you’re 5-33 against Pac-12 teams over the last two years, you take progress where you can find it.
Why might there be hope?
Well, we can say two things with confidence. 1) Cal’s defense was historically awful last season, and 2) Mark Fox is a very good defensive coach. In 14 years as a head coach Fox’s worst defensive team was still about nationally average. If Fox turns Cal into a nationally average defensive team the Bears will immediately be much more competitive. It might take more than one season to make that happen, but I’m confident that Fox will eventually produce strong defenses in Berkeley.
Alas, the hurdles to quick improvement are very obvious and very real. Justice Sueing, Connor Vanover, and Darius McNeill are gone. Last year, Sueing and Vanover were the only two players on the roster with an above average offensive rating in Pac-12 play. Throw in McNeill, and it means that Cal lost three of five players who received the most minutes of play in conference games. Losing that many minutes would be tough for many teams, but for a coach coming in trying to put together a transitory recruiting class it’s all the harder.
As a consequence (stop me if you’re tired of hearing this for the 3rd year in a row) Cal will be a very young team. Young like more scholarship true freshmen (five) than scholarship upperclassmen (four) on the roster.
But in a weird way, Cal’s roster turnover feels like something of a fresh start as well, even if lowers Cal’s already low ceiling in the short term. Six whole brand new players means there’s some level of unknown and uncertainty. Who knows, maybe Lars Thiemann and Kuany Kuany will be a dynamite defensive duo. Maybe Fox dug up an overlooked recruit or two. There are new faces to meet, who may well be remembered as the guys who began the Cal basketball turnaround.
There are going to be lumps. There are only two teams on Cal’s schedule that are likely to be ‘easy’ wins, and enough games against good teams (primarily at the 2K Classic) that there will be some demoralizing losses. But there will be opportunities to impress, opportunities for unexpected wins - and no, not in the Wyking-era sense where ANY win felt unexpected.
So no, this year isn’t about conference contention or tournament spots. Like each of the last two years, this season is hopefully about slow and steady improvement. Can Cal lower their 2pt% defense from 344th in the nation to, say, 200th? 150th? Can any of Cal’s young collection of big men flash the ability to contribute on both ends of the court? Can Mark Fox and his staff flash enough on the court to present a compelling narrative of improvement to future recruits?
I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. But I’m more hopeful that there might be somewhat positive answers to some those questions than I was under the last regime, when the closest thing to a positive development quickly ended with a dive into the transfer portal.
The season begins tomorrow against Pepperdine, amusingly against a coach (Lorenzo Romar) who will remind you of the days when Cal was consistently among the better teams in the conference. The Waves will represent the first in a series of tough-but-winnable games against teams somewhere in the 100-150 range nationally - perfect teams to measure up against if you’re a bottom-of-the-Pac-12 team trying to improve.
So if you’re one of the loyal few still on board the Cal MBB train, load up on patience and perspective and do your best to enjoy a season with just the slightest sprinkling of that foreign flavor: Hope.