Cal Men's Basketball 2022-2023 Preview: Sisyphean Basketball
How do you rebuild a program when every step forward is quickly followed by an equal step backwards?
Yea and I beheld Mark Fox in strong torment, grasping a rising senior with both his hands. He was pressing there at with hands and feet, and trying to push the senior upward toward Haas Pavilion. But oft as he was about to hurl him onto the court, the senior would drive him back, so once again transferring to a Mountain West team. And Mark Fox once more kept heaving and straining, and the sweat the while was pouring down his limbs, and the dust rose upward from his head.
If you're a program that can no longer recruit strongly within your conference, either from the transfer portal or at the high school level, you are left with exactly one choice: player development. You've got to find a way to turn a 3 star guy into an all-conference level player to build your program.
Over these last painful five years, Cal hasn't been entirely unsuccessful with that strategy. Justice Sueing, Matt Bradley, Andre Kelly - all three were developmental players who needed a year or two to grow into high end power conference contributors.
You see the fatal flaw, right? For Cal to recover from basketball purgatory, they need to both develop players AND to retain them. Since the departure of Cuonzo Martin, Cal has frequently lost players to the transfer portal as soon as they hit their developmental stride. Consequently, Cal hasn't been able to make any progress in the win/loss column.
While I don't feel any particular excitement about Mark Fox, I might occasionally allow myself to get excited about individual players. Sam Alajiki was an immediately positive contributor as a freshman and looks like he could develop beyond his current 3-and-D abilities. Jalen Celestine added to his game as a sophomore. It was fun to watch Lars Thiemann take advantage of his opportunity late last year. Cal's incoming class of freshmen have intriguing size and I'd bet that at least one of them will allow the loyal few who still closely following MBB to dream about better days.
But until Cal starts retaining the players that do develop, it's really hard to feel any degree of optimism. And when Cal leadership talks about how critical it is to be given time to develop talent . . .
Portal madness has overtaken the sport, but Fox believes his best strategy is to recruit high school players and develop them year by year. He has proven in his previous stops to be an effective developer of talent*, but that method takes time, and he does not have much of that. Fortunately for him, Christ understands that it’s unfair for a school to give a coach subpar facilities and make it harder for him to bring in transfers, and then send him packing for not winning enough. “I often feel that coaches get fired too quickly,” she says.
. . . I get skeptical that there is any kind of achievable rebuilding plan.
I don't blame the players at all. Matt Bradley more than paid his dues. Andre Kelly stayed for four years and got his degree. Justice Sueing didn't owe Cal anything after two years of misuse. The players should absolutely do what is best for them and I can't exactly argue that Cal basketball is clearly their best choice. But while fans can intellectualize why it might be best for a player to finish out their college eligibility elsewhere, these kinds of transfers destroy the one reason fans might have to pay attention to a struggling program: seeing a player complete his journey at Cal.
*Ed. note: evidence? Show your work!
Cal’s basketball season begins next Monday against UC Davis. As you might expect, season expectations are low. Cal was picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12 pre-season poll, and their vote total was closer to last place Oregon State (coming off one of the worst seasons in conference history) than 10th place Utah. Cal’s pre-season Kenpom rank is 146th. Only one power conference team ranks lower, and I bet you can figure out which team that is (lol Wayne Tinkle’s extension). Cal finished 153 in the Kenpom rankings in Fox’s first season, underscoring his inability to coax any kind of progress towards rebuilding this program.
The Bears lost Andre Kelly to the transfer portal, and Grant Anticevich, Jordan Shepherd, and Makale Foreman to graduation. Kelly, Anticevish, and Shepherd collectively represented Cal’s 1st, 2nd, and 3rd most frequent scoring options on offense. Jalen Celestine, perhaps the 4th option on offense, is unavailable to start the season following knee surgery. It’s entirely unclear who Cal will turn to for offensive production.
Having said that, if you’re one of the stoic few ready to follow this team, there are some intriguing aspects to this team. Can transfer Devin Askew, back at home in Northern California, find a way to deliver on his recruiting pedigree? There are EIGHT players on the roster who are 6’7’’ or taller, and there is the possibility that this team can be legitimately interesting on the defensive end.
Even if this team does turn out to be a plus defensive team, there’s almost certainly not enough offense to see significant progress in the standings, and there’s no guarantee that the Bears will improve defensively, as Fox’s best defense so far only peaked at 10th best in the conference. But when you’ve decided to follow a team that has gone 51-105 over the last five years, these are the hopes that you have to cling to.
There’s just something about the current era of Cal basketball that puts me in a Greek kind of mood. Everything I said in last year’s season preview regarding my approach to covering Cal MBB will apply this year:
We know the reality for the program right now, and harping on that is depressing without serving any particular function.
If you expect me to start and end every article talking about why Mark Fox should be replaced, you’ll be disappointed. But don’t worry, ticket sales at Haas Pavilion will do the talking for us.
No, I’m going to try to do the same I try to do every other season: talk about each game as we go, point out trends and shifts as the season goes along, try to highlight player development.
My goal is to maximize enjoyment and minimize anger/sadness, and that’s what works best for me. I’ll save teeth-gnashing about the state of the program-at-large for March.