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Cal men's basketball falls to Washington State on Senior Day
Joel Brown's strong effort isn't enough for depleted Bears
On senior day, Joel Brown had perhaps the best game of his Cal career. The senior point guard tied a career high with 9 assists to go along with 13 points and 7 rebounds. There was a point early in the 2nd half when it looked like Brown was going to go for a triple double, and he was basically the reason why Cal stayed right with Wazzu for 30 minutes. He was gliding into the paint with ease, and either scoring himself or dishing to somebody else when he did so.
Alas, Brown cooled off in the final 10 minutes, Cal didn’t have anybody else to pick up the slack, and the Cougars methodically built a double digit lead before some garbage time scoring cosmetically improved the final score to 63-57.
And as Washington State pulled away, I found myself experiencing a rare emotion: Sadness and regret.
Here’s the thing: I suspect that Joel Brown has the tools to have games like this much more frequently. He is still one of the fastest players I have ever seen with or without a basketball, with the handles to maneuver in tight spaces. He has never been able to develop a jump shot, and that has lowered his ceiling as a player, but most college players have clear strengths and weaknesses.
And it’s up to the coaches of those players to maximize those strengths and minimize those weaknesses. Joel Brown has, for four years, had to play the point in an inefficient, out-of-date offense. His speed has been clipped by a coach asking him to hold the ball in the half court set, his court space limited by a coach who cannot recruit shooting around him.
This is ultimately an unproveable hypothesis, but as I watched Joel Brown fruitlessly try to will Cal to a win on senior day, I couldn’t help but think that under a different coach, he well might have developed into a truly unique, successful college point guard. And I felt a crushing sadness that, from a basketball sense, Cal failed him.
I hope that Joel Brown (and Kuany Kuany, Lars Thiemann, Jared Hyder, and DeJuan Clayton, all of whom participated in senior day*) have found their time at Cal rewarding. Academically rewarding, socially rewarding, basketball rewarding, whatever. All of them came to Cal during a period of time when few would dare consider the challenge. Brown and Kuany, for one, were both incredibly gracious talking about their experiences and feelings after the game:
All of Cal’s seniors other than Clayton have at least one year of eligibility remaining due to Covid/injuries, but it’s hard to listen to the way Brown and Kuany spoke after the game and not think that they are ready to move on with their post-Cal lives.
The other obvious point of discussion from this game is Cal’s ever worsening injury situation. Cal was without Lars Thiemann and DeJuan Clayton, to go along with season ending injures to Devin Askew, Jarred Hyder, and Jalen Celestine. As a result, Cal only dressed 8 scholarship players for the game, all of whom played. Joel Brown, one of two healthy scholarship players listed as a guard, played 38 minutes.
It’s a tough analytical task trying to figure out how much Cal’s injuries woes have impacted the win/loss record.
Jalen Celestine might have been Cal’s best player, but we’re also talking about a player who averaged 7.5 points last year; there was no guarantee he would have taken that kind of step forward this year.
Devin Askew played nearly the entirety of Cal’s non-conference schedule and never actually played any minutes in a Cal win; it’s hard to argue that a fully healthy season would have been a significant difference.
DeJuan Clayton and Jarred Hyder have had constant injuries issues throughout their collegiate careers, such that their absences can hardly be viewed as surprising.
Individually, no single injury could possibly explain Cal’s historically poor results. Collectively, you could reasonably argue that if Cal’s entire roster were 100% healthy throughout the season, that the Bears surely would have been better.
The question is how much better? Only two players have missed the entire season, and when healthy Clayton and Askew didn’t meaningfully change Cal’s on-court performance. If you wanted to argue that a healthy roster would have won 7 games instead of 3 games I’d be willing to listen. But injuries were not the driving cause of Cal’s struggles, nor would good health have radically changed the course of the season.
Cal has two games in Oregon next week before they play in the 5-12 game of the Pac-12 tournament. At that point, we will start learning about which coaches and players will be around to try to revive Cal basketball next season.
That won’t make me feel any better about how, on the court, Cal failed their current seniors.