2020-21 Basketball Preview: Trying to rebuild amidst chaos

Charmin Smith and Mark Fox are both entering the second year of their Cal coaching tenures. But thanks to the pandemic, there are more questions than answers before the season begins

Hey, at least the cancellation of Cal’s season opener vs. Washington gives us bloggers some breathing room to squeeze in some basketball preview content in this bizarrely compressed year. What’s that? I’m hearing that this doesn’t qualify as a silver lining for anybody but me? Oh well!

Last year was indisputably the roughest season of Cal basketball in 15 years. The Cal men went 14-18 (7-11) while the Cal women went 12-19 (3-15), marking the first time that both programs finished below .500 since 2005. In the 14 years in between both programs had combined for 17 NCAA appearances and a conference title each. There was only one season in which both programs missed the NCAA tournament, and even in that year (10-11) both teams finished above .500 and made the NIT. For the Cal men, this was the most successful stretch since Pete Newell coached in the 50s. For the Cal women, this was the most successful stretch ever.

That last year was a collective low point was not surprising. For the men, last year was actually a measurable step forward from the depths of the Wyking Jones experiment. The women were expected to struggle following the graduation of four-year starters Asha Thomas and Kristine Anigwe, and injury issues for the few veterans on the roster only exacerbated the issue. Throw in the ridiculously, historically strong Pac-12 and you’ve got a formula for a rough season.

The story of the 2020-21 season was supposed to be a story of attempted rebirth and renewal. For the first time since the mid-point of the Cuonzo Martin era, the men were going to bring back the bulk of a roster. Meanwhile, Charmin Smith brought in a top 10 recruiting class. Both teams were almost guaranteed to improve, and the biggest question was going to be ‘how much better?’

And maybe that will still be the story of the season. But today is November 9th. The basketball season begins (in theory) on November 25th. Here is Cal men’s basketball’s current schedule:

  • December 3rd vs. Arizona State

  • December 6th at UCLA

Here is Cal women’s basketball’s current schedule:

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The Pac-12 has at least released a plan for the men’s basketball season. I can say with some small amount of confidence that the Cal men will host Stanford some time between February 3rd and February 7th! The conference is planning lots of flexibility into the schedule, which seems wise based on conditions on every football roster in the conference.

The fact that not a single non-conference game has been announced indicates to me that there will not be any non-conference games. Cal will have somewhere between 3 and 4 weeks between their scheduled games and the rest of the Pac-12 schedule, but with finals and the holidays in between maybe the risk appetite just isn’t there.

I’m going to assume that the Pac-12 is planning on holding a women’s basketball season modeled just like the men’s season - 20 games, with flexible game days and times to allow for COVID response. How they picked 20 when 18 represents a normal season and 22 represents a perfect round-robin is beyond me and ultimately not the point of this article.

We know that both teams have been practicing, with a brief intermission on the men’s side thanks to a solitary positive test that evidently did not spread to anybody else within the program. The season is coming. We just don’t have a particularly good sense of what shape the season will take. Like everything else this year, Cal will have no choice but to take things week by week and adapt as best as they can.

If their schedules are indeed entirely or almost entirely conference games, the tenor of the season changes. That’s very little time for freshmen to get their feet wet. No forgiveness for early season stumbles. For the men, that means 20 games in a power conference, down though the Pac-12 may be. For the women, that (we assume) means 20 games against the very best conference in the country, with more than half the conference expected to make the NCAA tournament.

That’s tough on two teams that, if a pre-season conference poll existed, would likely be picked somewhere in the bottom 3rd on the Pac-12. You may well recall that the Cal women went 9-4 against a reasonably strong slate of non-conference teams before struggling to a 3-15 conference record. The women’s roster has 10 scholarship players and they are ALL freshmen and sophomores. The men are comparatively more experienced but still have more freshmen and sophomores (8) than juniors and seniors (5). This season is going to be a trial by fire for two teams that are both inexperienced and will have to integrate new players without anything resembling a standard season structure.

Of course, as college football has amply demonstrated, there is the distinct possibility that this is a bad idea made worse by the increasingly alarming conditions in our country. But over the next two weeks we’ll do our best to preview the season, such as it is. And meanwhile we’ll all cross our fingers and hope that even trying to make this work won’t result in making a bad situation worse.

I really, really want to see what Dalayah Daniels and company can do, and watch a young group of players develop together. I would love to see just how many points Matt Bradley can score as the clear go-to player on offense.

Just like I really wanted to see Chase Garbers lead Cal to a 3rd straight win over Washington. You can’t always get what you want. But damned if we aren’t going to try sometimes.