Cal basketball reminds us of the joy of caring
It didn't take long, and it didn't take much.
It’s nice to just care.
Cal men’s basketball was rudderless. For over a half-decade, without reason and purpose, the program burned. Bad administrations processed themselves into bad hires which culminated in horrific results.
Haas Pavilion was a gathering of empty seats and phantoms of past glory. Fans who had stuck around through rough times and lean times completely vanished for. Multiple classes of Cal students essentially saw no meaningful college basketball pass through their lives.
It was hopeless. It was needless. It was incompetence. It was insane. The players and the fans suffered for no real reason.
It doesn’t really take much to please Cal fans. But even they were out. The program needed to show effort. The program needed to show care.
Madsen came in and reconstructed a talent-deficient Power 5 conference squads through the transfer portal with less than a month’s notice. Suddenly the Bears had a team ready to compete week-in, week-out.
Through what sounds like a less-than-ideal coaching search, Cal lucked into a coach who was willing to go the extra mile to succeed in Berkeley. They had a coach willing to ride BART to games. Madsen does his own marketing outreach to fans and students to encourage support.
Madsen then took that effort off the court and replicated on it, taking that talent and passion and placing them in positions to win nearly every game in year 1. The Bears are finally doing the little things that we’ve wanted for years, like maximizing ATOs and making the small in-game coaching adjustments to make tougher matchups winnable.
Suddenly, a team that was drawing a thousand fans a game a year ago is back to levels not seen since the team was competing for Pac-12 titles. Cal has in its last three games seen 8700 fans show up for Stanford. USC was nearly filled to the brim with 11801 tickets sold. Then 9280 showed up for UCLA.
It took a year after 3-29 to get here. One year!
The path has not been ideal. Their best player Jaylon Tyson gutted through injury in the early part of the season. Cal had to start numerous different rotations due to various bumps and bruises. Two rotation players in Devin Askew and N.D. Okafor were lost, leading Cal only eight ready Bears to start. Cal has had to drag themselves through games.
All these factors have the Bears enduring the most horrendous luck a college basketball team has faced in late-game situations. They keep playing variations of the same close game, with variance titlting against them.
Blow a big lead to lose…in the final seconds.
Fall behind, rally back, never really able to get over the top…right down to the final seconds.
Huge comeback to win…in the final seconds.
Lead most of the way, blow it, but rally to win…in the final seconds.
Scrap all the way back to compete in a game they shouldn’t, only to lose in the final seconds.
The Bears endured a long losing streak of games that ended in last second Cal losses. Cal is a few close wins away from having one of the most remarkable one-season turnarounds in college basketball history.
Despite all of that, Cal has persevered. Cal eventually turned some of those last second losses to last second wins, gutting out victories over Washington State, Colorado, Stanford and USC. Cal has taken nearly every non-Arizona team the distance, including tournament bound San Diego State and likely tourney-bound Butler and Ole Miss.
Jaylon Tyson has proven to be an All Pac-12 player, willing his team to multiple wins down the stretch. Fardaws Aimaq has been a double-double machine and remains the stabilizing force inside. Jalen Cone can get hot in a second, making huge threes when needed, and his decision-making continues to improve. Jalen Celestine has figured it out with new coaching. Keonte Kennedy makes a few clutch plays a game when the defense loses eyes on him. The core five makes their impact felt, despite an increasing minutes load that leaves them tired and ragged down the stretch.
Ultimately, this effort has been rewarded. The fans are back. The anticipation is back.
The future is still uncertain. Aimaq, Cone and Kennedy are all gone after next season. Tyson will test the draft waters. The talent that returns will not be enough to sustain this turnaround, so Madsen will almost certainly need to go back to the transfer portal and find contributors in a hurry. And the ACC looms, with many long winding road trips on the horizon.
But there is effort echoing in the halls of Haas. And the cries of “Go Bears!” follow. Good times are happening week-to-week, and that’s a start.