Men's Basketball: Oregon State 68, Cal 48: The Nadir of the Mark Fox Era
The short handed Bears fall easily at home to the Beavers
In any normal circumstance, a 4th year power conference coach who puts up a record of 3-17 (2-7) would be assumed to have been fired already, or awaiting confirmation of dismissal at the end of the season. A change in leadership would be a matter of when, not if.
But of course, Cal is not a normal power conference university and Cal’s basketball program is not in a normal situation.
Over the past few months, Cal’s administration has run a low level marketing campaign arguing that Mark Fox deserves more time because Cal is hard job to succeed in. Philosophers and business schools alike will spend years pondering why Cal administrators thought going on record with national reporters about how much Cal athletics sucks as an institution was a good idea, but they did it anyway.
Meanwhile, Mark Fox and every talking head on the Pac-12 Network are running a campaign arguing that injuries to this year’s roster have denied Cal a chance to compete on the court.
Today, against Oregon State, Cal announced before the game that while Devin Askew was finally able to return from his long injury layoff, Cal would be without Sam Alajiki and DeJuan Clayton*. The Bears then proceeded to lose badly to Oregon State.
The first 15 minutes of the game were low scoring for both teams, and it looked like Cal might be able to win a rock fight. But Oregon State finally started hitting 3s, and Cal didn’t have any kind of offensive answer. In a 59 possession slog of a game (tied for slowest game of the year!) the Bears looked in danger of failing to hit 40 points before a late, garbage-time flurry of scoring.
If you’re desperately searching for positives, Kuany Kuany scored 15 points on nine shots, and ND Okafor hit a crazy circus shot. Talking about the specifics of this game isn’t really worth it, so let’s focus back on the larger picture.
Setting aside the excuses from Cal’s administrators, now is as good a time as any to ponder the second excuse mentioned above. To what extent are injuries preventing Cal from winning basketball games?
If Devin Askew had been healthy all year long, with DeJuan Clayton beside him, and if Jalen Celestine hadn’t suffered a major knee injury early in the offseason, this team would almost certainly have a better record. I’d speculate the Bears would probably be more like 8-12 or thereabouts, based on how many close losses that could have reasonable been swung with a full roster. Something more in line with what Fox has produced in his prior three seasons in Berkeley.
Those three players are not the difference between a 3-17 team and a tournament team, or even a 3-17 team and a team that would push for a .500 record in the Pac-12. This isn’t a statement about the relative abilities of Cal’s injured players; it’s a statement about the relative abilities of Cal’s coaching staff.
Oregon State is a very bad basketball team. They have not won a game away from Corvallis, Oregon since 2021. They walked into Haas Pavilion and won by 20 points, their biggest margin of victory on the season. Clayton and Celestine and even a 100% healthy, game-fit Askew do not make up 20 points all by themselves.
Cal still had nine scholarship players healthy against the Beavers. Eight of those players were recruited by Mark Fox. Injuries happen to every team in the country; most of those coaches manage to maintain a baseline level of team performance. Mark Fox has been utterly unable to do so.
Mark Fox is nominally a defensive head coach. He built a roster that seemed specifically designed to be able to stop other teams from scoring. Seven of the nine players who received court time for Cal on Sunday are 6’6’’ or taller, and plenty athletic enough. The two players shorter than that include a former 5 star recruit and one of the fastest players I’ve ever watched on a basketball court. I can attest to the fact that these players have been giving Mark Fox on-court effort. No team that started the season 0-12 can pick themselves off the mat and win a few games against solid teams if they aren’t trying anymore.
Despite having players that are tall, athletic, and putting in effort, the Bears have the worst defense in the Pac-12 and one of the worst defenses in power conference basketball.
Injuries are not the reason that Mark Fox cannot build a solid defense. Injuries are not the reason Mark Fox asks Lars Thiemann to attempt post-up isolations 15 feet from the basket. Injuries are not the reason Cal plays desperately slow basketball such that the Bears regularly have to hoist late shot-clock prayers that are never answered. Injuries are not the reason that Mark Fox has built a 19-52 record against Pac-12 teams across 3+ seasons.
If one season ending injury to a guard that you knew about WELL before the season began, plus a couple of other off-and-on guard injuries are enough to derail your season on both ends of the floor this badly, you’ve got a coaching staff unable to build a foundation for any kind of success regardless of the circumstances.
Despite some lingering uncertainty, I suspect that Jim Knowlton has already made up his mind, and that Mark Fox will be relieved of his duties at the end of the season. If that decision hasn’t already been made, if Cal’s performance down the stretch of this season could somehow swing the decision one way or the other, surely this game seals the final outcome.
*In the post-game press conference, Fox indicated that Alajiki and Clayton are day-to-day, and that Celestine likely won’t return for the season.