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Processing the bad kind of history making
Dealing with the grim reality of an 0-11 start to the season.
I don’t know how to be a fan right now.
I mean that quite sincerely. There’s a reason I haven’t written a word about the Cal MBB team since the season preview article I wrote more than a month ago. I’ve talked about how, during the season itself, I try to tune out anger over the state of the program, vitriol directed at Mark Fox and Jim Knowlton, and various drive-by insults. The goal is to pay attention to the basketball, to analyze it, to explain why Cal won this game or lost this game, why Cal is good at this basketball thing or bad at this other basketball thing.
That approach is not currently possible. When a team is 0-11, ranked 258th in Kenpom, is (perhaps generously) favored to win two games out of 21 left on the schedule, analysis is pointless and feels cruel.
You would think I’d be used to it by now, and I’ve always found something interesting to watch. When Cal first bottomed out under Wyking Jones, it was my first experience following a broken program, and I had a certain amount of grim curiosity trying to figure out why that went so wrong. When Mark Fox was hired, Cal immediately improved from historically bad to unremarkably bad, and I could spend time looking at how Fox improved Cal’s performance, and also what he still needed to improve if he wanted to restore Cal to Pac-12 averageness.
But now, even that is gone. Mark Fox will be fired at some point between now and early March; analyzing what he does or does not do as a coach feels pointless. I’ve already started writing my Mark-Fox-Era retrospective article and the only question is when precisely it will be published.
Meanwhile, fans are left to debate awful questions like whether or not it’s best for the health of the program to show up to games or not. Do we want to send a message to Cal that they should invest in the program, because we’re willing to show up? Is it better to send Cal a message that fans won’t tolerate coaching performance like this? Personally, I don’t think it really matters, as Fox is going to be fired anyway and I don’t think fan attendance will impact anything one way or the other, but I understand why one might have the debate.
If you’re interested in actual basketball analysis, grisly though it must be, feel free to read the next section. But I wouldn’t blame you if you skip it and head down to the 3rd section below.
How did we get to this point? I’ll admit to being almost as shell-shocked as Mark Fox. I, like everybody else, wanted Cal to make a coaching change after last season, but I didn’t expect anything like what we’ve seen so far this year. I expected another 10-20 kind of season, another year of treading water, another year of developing recruits before they transfer away to help another team win.
Instead, 0-11. Five losses to mid-majors that a power conference team would be expected to beat, six losses by 9 or more points to power conference teams. Cal has never been even close to good offensively under Mark Fox, but the Bears are one of the worst shooting teams in the country while simultaneously being one of the most turnover prone teams in the country. Combine that and you get the 320th ranked offense in terms of points/possession in the NCAA.
Meanwhile, the defense has also fallen apart. Fox’s teams are typically very good at stopping opponents from making their 2 point shots, and then keeping them off the glass. Cal has been unable to do either this year, and as a result this is the worst team defense a Mark Fox team has ever produced.
Why? Why this, why now? Well, the offensive struggles maybe aren’t shocking - Fox’s recruiting focus has been on bringing in long, athletic wings, presumably so that his teams can defend with intensity and flexibility. Unfortunately, that means that many of Cal’s recruits have been comparatively less polished when it comes to ball handling, passing, and shooting. The other aspect is that for every raw-but-athletic wing you recruit, that’s one less guard with plus handles or a good shot on the roster. Cal entered the season with only five guards on the roster, and three of them are currently hurt. Unlucky, perhaps, but also a roster management failure that we’ve been worrying about for years.
The real mystery is why Cal hasn’t been able to defend. Like I mentioned, Cal is BIG - the 5th tallest team per Kenpom’s height metric. Eight dudes 6’6’’ or taller getting minutes. And it’s not like they’re a bunch of stiffs - they can run and jump all over the gum. The Bears should easily be able to play at least average power conference defense, if not much better. Why aren’t they? I honestly don’t know. I guess I don’t really see any reason to disagree with Mark Fox’s assessment:
I think we should blame the coach. I can’t put a defense together that gives us a chance to win . . . I’ve got a find a way to get that done.
Offense is ultimately a bigger problem for this team, but Mark Fox is a defensive coach who appeared to recruit players with a specific defensive profile, so ultimately his failure to get Cal to play even decent defense is particularly baffling.
Part of the reason I haven’t said much is because I’ve struggled to find the right words to describe this situation, without appearing to demean Cal’s players, who very much don’t deserve that.
You feel for Devin Askew, who has had a tough college basketball journey, and now he’s being asked to do everything for a short-handed team running an outdated offense. His effort is obvious in an impossible situation and you get the sense that this reality is hurting him the most.
You feel for Grant Newell and ND Okafor, who probably weren’t supposed to be major players this year but have been thrust into the rotation immediately for lack of options.
You feel for Cal’s sophomores, many of whom have been dealing with injuries either this year or last year.
You feel for Joel Brown and Lars Thiemann, who each have devoted their entire college careers to Cal and now have to carry heavy burdens due to a lack of other options at their positions.
You feel for the entire roster, who came to Cal during an era when few others were willing to commit, and who haven’t been given the opportunity to develop and show off their talents.
There is no joy to be found, only the hope of relief if/when Cal wins a game. I’m rooting hard for that to happen, and as soon as possible.