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Rebuilding is impossible without recruiting
As Cal MBB enters the off-season, long term optimism is in short supply
The 2021-22 Cal men’s basketball season is over, and now it’s time for everybody to look back and assess. Jim Knowlton and the Cal athletic department are no doubt doing just that.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to suggest that the majority of Cal’s basketball fan base would prefer to see the Bears move on from head coach Mark Fox, who in three years has largely failed to make progress in rebuilding the program. And yet, if reports are to be believed, Jim Knowlton isn’t just going to not fire Mark Fox - he’s considering extending Mark Fox.
I can only speculate on the factors that might be at play that would lead Cal to decide either to let Mark Fox coach out his contract, or to consider extending him. But if Cal stays the course, I can only assume that Cal’s leadership believes two things:
Cal’s current rebuilding period is so challenging that nobody* could realistically have achieved a turnaround in three years.
Mark Fox is still their guy to eventually achieve a turnaround.
*or, at least, nobody in Cal’s price range.
And honestly? I don’t necessarily dispute point #1. The damage done to the MBB program by Cal’s prior administration and by Wyking Jones was extreme.
The problem is that I’ve seen no concrete evidence that Mark Fox is capable of rebuilding the Cal MBB program, no matter how much time he is given, for one simple reason: Mark Fox has been unsuccessful as a recruiter.
Counting next year’s incoming recruiting class, Mark Fox has brought in 12 freshmen recruits and 5 transfers into the program. Of those 12 freshmen, here’s how the 247 composite ranks them:
4 star recruits: one (Monty Bowser)
3 star recruits: eight
2 star recruits: one (Dimitrios Klonaras)
Unranked: two (Sam Alajiki and Lars Thiemann, probably because they were unscouted euros)
It’s probably worth noting that Monty Bowser just barely snuck in as a composite 4 star, ranking at #131 in the nation with the top 137 in the class of 2020 earning a 4 star ranking.
Over Mark Fox’s four recruiting classes at Cal, here’s how many 4/5 star recruits every Pac-12 team has signed (again, per 247):
Washington State: 2
Oregon State: 0
Not great; also, kinda makes sense why Oregon State just put up arguably the single worst season in modern Pac-12 history, huh?
Of course, it’s worth noting that freshman recruiting is maybe only half the battle in college basketball these days. Bolstering your team through the transfer portal is equally as critical.
And while I’ve certainly appreciated what players like Makale Foreman and Jordan Shepherd brought to Cal, the reality is that most other Pac-12 schools have secured commitments from higher impact transfers over the last few years.
So the macro view isn’t great. There are micro issues as well. Mark Fox inherited point guard Joel Brown as a recruit who first committed to Wyking Jones. Mark Fox has failed in every effort he has made to identify and recruit another true point guard to the roster, a failure that includes a low ranked JC transfer choosing Buffalo over Cal. Joel Brown is entering his senior year and Cal still doesn’t have another true point guard on the roster or committed for the future!
To the extent that Mark Fox has defenders, they might point out that Cal’s players develop and improve in their four years in Berkeley. You could see evidence of that this year, with Andre Kelly emerging as an interior force, and Lars Thiemann stepping up in Andre’s absence. You could argue that Mark Fox got the best out of Grant Anticevich after Grant spent two years struggling to contribute under Wyking Jones. Kuany Kuany took a nice step forward in his 3rd year in the program this season on both ends of the court.
We could have an interesting debate about how much is coaching vs. the inherent level of improvement you would expect from solidly talented players given access to power conference level training and competition. But the fact is that these and other players have improved under Mark Fox.
And to be clear, it’s not a bad thing to have some developmental recruits on the roster! Outside of perhaps Arizona and UCLA, nobody in this conference can build an entire roster out of top 100 recruits. Having guys who are going to grow into a role over 4 or 5 years on campus can provide valuable roster stability.
The problem is that if you build your entire roster out of players who, at the Pac-12 level, are more developmental players that need 1 or 2 (or more) years to blossom into Pac-12 level players, you’re constantly going to be treading water, because those players are going to leave shortly after growing into rotation contributors.
For example, I’m intrigued to see what players like Jalen Celestine, Lars Thiemann, and Kuany Kuany all do when they are likely given larger roles in the rotation next year following the departures of Jordan Shepherd and Grant Anticevich . . . but those three players are all in year three or four in the program, and we’re still not sure if each are ready to step up into a higher usage role within the offense. Even IF they step up, they’re only going to be around for another couple years at best.
Even worse, if Cal and Mark Fox continue to rely on developing long term recruits, we’re constantly at risk of those players going the Matt Bradley route and grad transferring out for a shot at the NCAA tournament, as Andre Kelly could easily decide to do.
If Mark Fox had one or two really highly ranked players committed for the future, or if Mark Fox had a track record has a strong recruiter prior to coming to Cal, or if Mark Fox had a track record as a smooth operator in the transfer portal, or if Mark Fox had a track record of being able to take 3 star talent and coach them into playing efficient offensive basketball . . . if one or more of those things were true, maybe Cal fans could talk themselves into some amount of begrudging optimism about the 2022-23 season and beyond.
But none of those things are true. When I looked at Mark Fox’s recruiting history at Georgia, I wasn’t impressed. He’s been worse at Cal. When I looked at Mark Fox’s statistical history at Georgia, I wasn’t impressed. He’s been worse at Cal.
I want to believe. I want to have hope. I think it’s safe to say that few people have spent more time watching, thinking about, and pouring over information related to Cal basketball over the last three years, and I can’t really come up with any good data points to be optimistic. If reporting is to be believed, Jim Knowlton has found reasons to be optimistic. I hope he knows something the rest of us don’t.