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Wyking Jones retrospective: An Inevitable End

A final look back at a two year stretch that was crushing in its predictability

NCAA Basketball: Oregon State at California D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

This was how it was always going to end. This wasn’t hard to predict. Inexperienced, unheralded new coach + wildly difficult roster situation = disaster.

And no, this isn’t 20/20 hindsight. Way back when Wyking Jones was hired, CGB tried to put on a brave face, hoping against hope that there was some reason that this experiment would work despite no particular evidence that it would. But behind the scenes the general mood was despair. Some of the CGB basketball writers chat through twitter DMs. Here is an exchange between Reef (grey) and myself (blue) upon learning that Cal had hired Wyking Jones to replace Cuonzo Martin:

Reef’s comment three days later after Jemarl Baker decommitted?

It is significantly more likely that Cal basketball falls off a cliff in the next 5 years, than experiences a renaissance.

Publicly, where we need and want to be measured, cautious, and fair to a coach and a program put in a difficult spot, the most optimistic statement I could muster was this:

I have no concrete information that would allow me to say that Wyking Jones will succeed or fail . . . You’re going to have to take this one on faith. You have to hope that Wyking was involved in all of the good things that happened over the past few years, and that he knows how to fix (but wasn’t given the opportunity to address?) all of the weaknesses we saw over the last three years.

Well, now we have our results.

In 2017-18, Jones led Cal to the worst season in modern program history, largely due to an utterly broken offense. Cal finished the season 8-24 (2-16) and ranked 244th in the nation via Kenpom, with the least efficient offense and the 2nd least efficient defense* in Pac-12 play.

In 2018-19, Jones led Cal to results that were virtually identical to the 17-18 season, largely due to an utterly broken defense. Cal finished the season 8-23 (3-15) and ranked 242 in the nation according to Kenpom, with the least efficient offense and the 2nd least efficient defense* in Pac-12 play. No, I didn’t just copy and paste the previous paragraph.

*Hat tip to Ernie Kent and Washington State for preventing Cal from finishing dead last in both Pac-12 offense and defense two years in a row.

That’s the quickie summary of on court results, which by themselves would be enough for a leadership change in most places around the country. But then you have to dive into all of the off-court stuff. Everything else that contributed to fans losing faith and tuning out. Losing Charlie Moore and Jemarl Baker. The Theo Robertson debacle. Unsatisfying responses to questions about Jones’ time at Louisville, poster program for NCAA malfeasance. All of the drama and roster mismanagement that led to the voluntary or forced departures of Brandon Chauca, Deschon Winston, Austin McCullough, and Don Coleman.

Cal has one of the more tolerant, patient major conference fan bases out there. It’s rare for a coach to be fired after three seasons, let alone two. But Cal also quietly had (there’s that heartbreaking past tense) one of the most successful basketball programs in the Pac-12 over the last decade.

Did you know that during the nine year span of 2009-2017, Cal (98) trailed only Arizona (116) and UCLA (102) for most Pac-12 wins? And that Cal finished with 10 conference wins or more in 8 of 9 seasons, and finishing lower than 5th only once? That Cal made 5 NCAA appearances and 3 NIT appearances? For basically a decade, Cal was the 3rd best basketball program in the Pac-10/12, nearly matching UCLA despite a fraction of the institutional support and historic cachet.

True, the 17-18 roster situation was dire. But neither is Cal some sort of wasteland power conference, devoid of success and cachet (or at least, it wasn’t two years ago). It didn’t need to get this bad. The whole point of hiring Jones was the presumption that he could maintain the positives of the Cuonzo Martin regime, by maintaining current recruiting options and keeping the current roster intact, right? Needless to say, the reality was very, very different.

As noted above, this was roughly the outcome many expected the minute Wyking Jones was announced as the new hire. But I’m trying to pinpoint when I knew for sure that it would end like this. There are a few different candidates. Chaminade. A 25 point loss to Washington State in 2018 that all but confirmed last place in the Pac-12. A pessimist might’ve pointed to the very first game of the 17-18 season, an 8 point loss to UC Riverside, who proceeded to finish 4-12 in the Big West that season. An optimist might have held out hope until Cal nearly lost to Cal Poly at home this year, or when the Bears got beaten decisively at home by Seattle two weeks later.

Me? I knew when Cal lost by 27 points at home to Central Arkansas on December 6, 2017. You can ask me whether or not it was the score or the activation of Haas Pavilion’s emergency evacuation system after the game, but that combination of objective results and mystical messaging sealed things in my mind. The game prompted me to begin researching previously disastrous Pac-12 coaching tenures for comparison, because it was obvious where this experiment was heading. This was an era of Cal men’s basketball that was going to be short and grisly.

If you’re a generous soul, you might argue that Cal’s results under Jones were inevitable based upon the roster situation that any coach was going to inherit to start the 17-18 season. Cal, after all, had just two returning contributors in Kingsley Okoroh and Don Coleman. Similarly, Cal was all but guaranteed to be a team full of freshmen and sophomores in 18-19 barring some transfer wheeling and dealing during the off-season.

This is all true and fair and right to point out. Cal was guaranteed to struggle badly in Jones’ first season. The question was whether or not the magnitude of struggle was inevitable. On that point, I’m confident that we’ve spent enough time talking about the difference between garden variety bad teams (say, Oregon State last year or Stanford this year) and the historically bad Cal teams that we’ve seen over the last two seasons. There is a big difference between a 2-16 conference record and a 6-12 conference record. It matters when a team loses games by 15 points instead of 7.

Even if you grant a mulligan for year one, you would expect to see some level of progress in year two. And while the exact manner of Cal’s struggles have changed, the overall results are virtually indistinguishable. Going from 2 conference wins to 3 (when the entire conference got worse) isn’t progress. Going from 244th in Kenpom to 242nd isn’t progress.

If Wyking Jones had shown any sliver of progress and improvement, any slight chance that he could get Cal back to a .500 record in a season, he would probably still be Cal’s head coach. The bizarre nature of this week’s news cycle is probably an indication that Jim Knowlton was considering another season. Perhaps not for any reason other than that Cal’s athletic department isn’t really in an ideal position to buy out a head coach for a program that probably won’t be a big money maker even if they nail the next hire.

But this level of performance was just too extreme to be tenable. This is at least the worst two year stretch for a Pac team since Jay John led Oregon State to a 17-46 (3-33) record in 06-07/07-08. It’s worth pointing out that the Pac-10 then was meaningfully stronger than the Pac-12 Cal has faced the last two season. If you don’t make a regime change for this you’ve basically thrown in the towel as a competitive program. When news broke on Friday that Jones was going to get another year, my planned headline for this column was going to be “Cal Men’s Basketball is not currently a revenue program.”

If this was doomed from the start in a way that was obvious to many (most?) observers, what exactly was the athletic department thinking when they made the hire? To answer that question you’ll have to ask Mike Williams. Either way, the campus leadership that was in place two years ago has almost entirely turned over, and now the new boss has a shot to get it right.

You might reasonably object to all of this as grave dancing. Rest assured that there is no joy in this exercise. While (as mentioned above) there are serious roster management questions, by other accounts Wyking Jones is a decent enough guy. Unfortunately, he was placed in a wildly tough scenario that he wasn’t really equipped to handle. I don’t blame him for taking on that challenge, but the on-court results are the on-court results. Stating the reality of things is painful, but we have no choice but to be clear-eyed about that reality.

A man has lost his job, and that’s not cause for celebration. But that he received $5 million in compensation for that job is in part because of the money made (or not made) based on whether or not people like you and me are interested in consuming the product. That interest was clearly on life support.

I don’t know where Cal men’s basketball goes from here. There are interesting talents on the roster, players who can be plus Pac-12 contributors given time to mature physically and the proper coaching and structure. Some of that talent was probably going to leave if Jones was retained. Some of that talent might choose to leave under a new head coach. Recruiting will be disrupted for the 2nd time in as many years. Cal should have taken strides towards competitive basketball if no change had been made, and they should probably take strides under a new coaching staff - but nothing is guaranteed.

Over the next few days we will begin the process of profiling potential head coaching candidates. When a new head coach is announced, there’s a very solid chance that it’s a name we didn’t even mention on the CGB coaching board. Short of a Friday leak that turned out to be at least partly false, this athletic department seems to be pretty disciplined about leaking information. All we can do is hope that claims that Knowlton has the funds to chase a ‘top-tier’ candidate are true, and that he takes the advice of people who know what a basketball coach should be.

Cal men’s basketball is not out of the wilderness. But the necessary choice that might lead to escaping the wilderness has been made.

This news marks the end of an unpleasant two years of Cal MBB fandom. While Cal football has been largely moribund during the entirety of CGB’s existence, men’s basketball has generally been quite good, as noted above. I would always look forward to November, when men and women’s basketball returned and the hope of post-season play and conference title races were renewed.

Which is why the last two years have been so draining. I’ve spent Sunday nights plumbing the annals of the depths of college basketball misery rather than on bracketology, while watching the previously strong MBB community devolve into woe or simply disappear.

I think it’s sadly fitting that the final act of this era was a silly-season news weekend that sucked up all of the oxygen while the Cal women played a wonderful game of basketball in the NCAA tournament that not nearly enough people were watching or paying attention to.

Simply put, being a Cal men’s basketball fan for the last two years hasn’t been fun, and that’s left a hole in my Cal fan heart. While the athletic department tries to rebuild what has been lost over the last two years, my hope is that we all start to rebuild our own Cal MBB community, of which CGB is just one small part.

It’s time to flush all of the anguish, toxicity, and unhappiness out of our system. Here’s to feeling optimistic for the first time in years. See you all at Haas next November.