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Season Preview: Cal Basketball for Stoics
The 2021-22 Cal men's basketball season as an exercise in philosophy
I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you. - Seneca
I’m generally not a hugely philosophical person. Life just sort of . . . is, and you do your best each day.
Which I guess has something to do with why stoicism appeals to me. Virtue is hard, but is its own reward. You have emotions, but your goal is to master them so that they don’t rule you.
What does this have to do with Cal men’s basketball? Well, in the aftermath of last year’s season, I wrote the following:
But if you’re a casual fan who asks me why I’m talking about MBB, a fan who wants to see some sort of baseline improvement in wins and losses before paying attention again, I can’t tell you that I think the program has the institutional support needed to pull off rapid improvement.
If you’re a dedicated men’s basketball fan, following this program game-to-game, then for some reason you’ve embraced struggle, defeat, and suffering. That choice is not a virtue. I don’t think you’re a better fan for sticking it out for the perceived honor of it all.
No, stoicism is about getting in the right mental mindset to follow a team that is 17-62 against Pac-12 teams over the last four years.
Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable… then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature. - Marcus Aurelius
I don’t want to belabor the point: the 2021-22 Cal men’s basketball team will be bad.
I’m not saying it to make a point, I’m not saying it to be mean. It’s just reality. In each of the last four seasons, Cal has been predicted by the media to finish 10th or worse in the Pac-12. In each of the last four seasons, Cal has actually finished 10th or worse in the Pac-12. Only once has Cal approached being solidly competitive in their own conference.
And to be clear, this was not written in reaction to Cal’s season-opening loss to UC San Diego. In fact, most of this article was written prior to that game, but delayed by the comedy of errors that has been Cal football over the last two weeks. I’ll admit to being slightly surprised that Cal lost to the Tritons . . . but only slightly.
This year, Cal is returning largely the same roster that finished 12th last year, except minus their best player. Matt Bradley is now at San Diego State, and Cal replaced him in part with three true freshmen who are unlikely to make an immediate impact. Jordan Shepard is the only transfer in, and while he’ll help he’s unlikely to be the all-conference level performer this team desperately needs.
The Bears are, of course, predicted to finish 12th again. Even if I were to go full homer I couldn’t concoct an argument against that prediction. I fully expect Cal to finish last in the conference for the 4th time in 5 seasons.
If you’re even reading this, you probably know all of this already. If you’re reading this, maybe you’ve already figured out an answer to a very important question. Have you found a way to enjoy watching losing basketball?
Because if you’re still watching Cal basketball after four years, you need to have found an answer to that question.
It’s something I’ve pondered frequently over the last four seasons. I, of course, watch because I have to; because I had volunteered to recap a certain game, or because I am supposed to write about the team generally. And so I had to find a way to watch that wasn’t going to make me miserable.
Answers that I have come up with, to varying degrees of success:
Embrace esoteric Greek philosophy, and turn off your fan mind. This maybe only works for me, because I have to write about each game, but I just treat each game as an analytical exercise, looking for something unique or interesting or insightful. Kinda takes the ‘fan’ part out of the equation, but it works for me.
Watch for improvement and development and occasionally successes from individual players. Grant Anticevich barely got on the court as a freshman, and now he’s a key rotation cog and probably Cal’s best two-way player. Andre Kelly took a couple of years to figure out how to play efficiently inside despite being undersized, but he figured out how to finish in space and put in a great, efficient offensive season last year.
Allow wins over Stanford to keep you alive like a snake that only needs to eat once a month. Is this just a chance to reflect on the fact that Cal has five wins over Stanford under Wyking Jones and Mark Fox? Mostly, yes. But honestly those wins over Stanford made me so inordinately happy, I was cackling for days.
Look for signs of hope for the future. Maybe Jalen Celestine or Monty Bowser make a 2nd year leap. Maybe Marsalis Roberson or Obinna Anyanwu or Sam Alajiki make a surprise splash as freshmen. This can be a successful short term strategy but if you’re not careful it can lead to irrational optimism that is crushed in short order.
Maybe you have your own way to enjoy this era of Cal basketball. Maybe you don’t, and you’ve checked out, and you’re reading this out of some kind of weird curiosity.
I want this article to also serve as something of a sign post. I’ve laid out my expectations for this season. I am going to try very, very hard to embrace stoicism and not spend the rest of the season writing articles that pointlessly rehash everything stated above. 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. That’s what gets me through the season, and hopefully it’s more interesting than five months of whining and bellyaching.
Because absent everything else, these are the players that chose to come to Cal during probably the darkest era of Cal basketball, and they deserve at least that much.