November 5, 2019 was the date the men’s basketball program returned to the University of California. Steering without a coach for two full seasons of muddled, disjointed play, the Bears fielded a team from 2017-2019, but what they produced was not basketball.
On Tuesday we saw what basketball looks like. On the opening night of a new era, head coach Mark Fox sent a team out on the court that was prepared to play basketball: prepared with defensive fundamentals at the point of attack; prepared to give energy and effort for 40 minutes; prepared to face adversity and not wilt; prepared to make whatever adjustments were necessary under game conditions...and most importantly [sweet, blessed, praise to the gods most importantly] the California Golden Bears on this night were prepared to win.
Cal came in as a two point underdog to the Pepperdine Waves, a team that is likely to finish in the top 4 in the WCC. For an easy comparison, they might be roughly a 10th place Pac-12 team — and a team that Cal would have struggled with, and probably lost to, the last several seasons. And with most of the Cal starting lineup departed from last season, and a roster stacked primarily with newcomers or little used reserves, in the first half the matchup developed exactly as advertised. The Golden Bears played hard, and at times played well, but at other times they struggled to communicate defensively, and they were not entirely sure where they wanted to go on offense.
As a result, the Bears walked into the locker room at the half trailing 37-35, having fought back from as much as 7 down. They had delivered a reasonable performance, establishing that they were not going to continue to play the comically bad level of defense that had become common in the recent past, but also establishing that they had a lot to improve.
The improvement came quickly.
There has not been much halftime coaching in Berkeley recently. That changed tonight, as the tenor of the game completely transformed in the second half. On defense the Bears had let sophomore Colbey Ross feast early on, and Ross’s 17 first half points, combined with multiple transition opportunities for the Waves, were exposing weaknesses in the Bears’ focus. They shut all that down after halftime. Ross scored only two points after the break, stifled by consistent help defense from all over the floor, and simultaneously the Pepperdine transition game disappeared, in part because the Bears started to run back to stifle it, and in part because it’s hard to score in transition when you’re taking the ball out of your own basket.
Perhaps the most impressive component of the evening was California’s relentless, attacking offense in the second half. Mark Fox found a weakness in the Pepperdine defense, and unmercifully exploited it with repeated pick and rolls, penetration to the basket, finishes at the rim, and then kick outs to open shooters for good 3p looks. Armed with this new aggressiveness, the Bears came out of the locker room and hit 9 of their first 11 shots from the floor after the break, taking a close game and blowing it wide open. After the run, fueled by Paris Austin and Matt Bradley with the ball, and Andre Kelly setting high ball screens, the Bears were suddenly up double digits. Austin finished with 14 points, Kelly with 16, and budding star Bradley a game and career high 25.
The Bears held the Waves to 1.0 points per possession on 39% 2p shooting, while themselves managing an eye opening 1.23 points per possession. Efficiency dominance we couldn’t even dream of a season ago.
Oh, yeah, and the final score: Cal 87 - Pepperdine 71.
This is normally the spot in my recap when I go into a little more depth on the intricacies of what took place between the lines tonight. But on this night, I don’t want to do that.
On this night I just want to pause, reflect, and appreciate the fact that after not being able to breathe for a couple years, suddenly the air smells sweet again. There is reason for hope, and for pride, and perhaps even for optimism. Cal had not beaten a competent, top-125 opponent by double digits since January 29, 2017. That’s a long time to live with futility — and the distant, unreachable dream of mediocrity.
Tonight we put it all behind us, and we look to the future. To a coach who knows how to teach the game, and players who want to wear Blue and Gold.
It’s a new dawn. Welcome back, Cal basketball.