Jan. 2 was the last time that Cal men’s basketball won a game this season. It was an impressive home victory over ASU to start the new year, bringing the Bears’ record to 2-1 in conference and 9-5 overall. Things were looking up for the team.
The month plus following that game has brought one of the most futile stretches of play for Cal in recent history, which is saying a lot, given that the team has finished last in the Pac-12 in four of the last five seasons and appears well on its way to a fifth-basement finish.
Cal’s record has dropped to 9-15 overall and a shocking 2-11 in Pac-12 play. While nothing has been pretty in the 36 days and counting since the blue and gold’s last win, this week’s pair of games — demoralizing home defeats to Washington and Washington State that extended Cal’s losing streak to 10 games — were perhaps a new low.
It started off with an 84-63 shellacking at the hands of the Huskies, who bombarded the Bears from the 3-point line to blow them off the court. Washington shot a season-high 12 3s on 23 attempts for a scorching-hot shooting percentage of 52 from beyond the arc that exceeded its shooting percentage on 2s.
Not only did the Bears struggle to get stops, they couldn’t buy a bucket, either, and went a dreadful 5-22 from 3-point range. On almost the exact same number of attempts, Washington made seven more 3s than Cal, good for 21 points. That 3-point shooting margin ended up being the key difference in the game, as the Huskies ended up on top by exactly 21 points.
“We did not play well tonight,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox after the game. “We looked a step behind everything, and our defense gave us no chance.”
This loss stung in particular for the Bears not only because it was a blowout, but because unlike many of the losses during this slide that have come on the road or against ranked opponents, this defeat was at home to a middle of the pack conference opponent they were favored to beat. Instead, they were played off the floor entirely.
Things got even worse for the blue and gold in their day off between games when it was announced that star forward Andre Kelly, who went down with an ankle injury against USC, would miss the rest of the season. Kelly has been Cal’s best player this season and one of its bright spots, so with him absent for the final seven games of the year, the question may become not when the Bears will get their next win, but if.
The blue and gold had another opportunity to do so at home against a mid-table opponent with their matchup against Washington State on Saturday but again fell short in a 68-64 defeat.
To their credit, the Bears showed heart and led by a 16-point performance from senior forward Grant Anticevich and career-high 20-point game from Canadian sophomore guard Jalen Celestine; mounted a furious push for a comeback to close the game that ended up falling just short. It was an admirable effort in the middle of a grim stretch of play, with multiple Bears stepping up in the absence of their leader Kelly.
The difference in the game was again 3-point shooting, with the Cougars shooting a phenomenal 10-21 from distance to help them withstand an early push from the Bears and eventually pull away in the second half. Cal did come close, but be it a 21-point blowout or 4-point nail-biter, at the end of the day, it was one more loss to bring the team’s skid to double digits.
“We’ve gotten close, but that’s not what we came here to do,” Fox said following the game. “We’re certainly having a hard time putting one in the win column. We have to continue doing the right things, be a little bit more complete and play more good minutes than we played today.”
It’s been a difficult stretch for Cal, but this week — which saw two demoralizing losses and confirmation of a season-ending injury to the team’s star player — might have been the roughest yet. The Bears now sit at a crossroads, and how they respond from here may end up defining the season, Coach Fox’s job and the future of the program in general.