Cal men’s basketball is back: Come Wednesday, the sweet snap of the swishing net —inaudible since March— will return to Haas Pavilion as the Bears face Chico State in an exhibition game. Although the matchup is effectively a scrimmage, it will reveal crucial information for Cal’s upcoming campaign.
The result of the contest against the Division II Wildcats is of little importance –– head coach Mark Fox will likely heavily rotate his lineup and look to spread out minutes among his whole squad. With the regular season starting five days later, the Bears may not be playing at full throttle. But the game will dissolve major question marks hanging over the Bears as they head into the 2022-2023 campaign.
Cal is coming off of a 12-20 season which saw it finish third to last in Pac-12. And while this was actually an improvement on its prior season, in which the entire conference was piled on top of last-place Cal, the Bears’ crucial outgoings over this past offseason will serve as a significant step back.
Cal’s incumbent top three scoring leaders all ran the course of their eligibility last year. Between Jordan Shepherd, Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich, Cal will lose over half of its points scored last season. The entire party of departing players who made it on the scoresheet in 2021-2022, which includes two more players, comprised about 60% of the blue and gold’s total scoring.
The vacuum is massive. So the question of “who will step up?” could not be of more moment. Cal’s returning roster offers questionable leads.
Junior Jalen Celestine was the Bears’ fourth-leading scorer last year. He grew to become an important figure in the team before he suffered a knee injury that required surgery. He is expected to return later in the season and will take time to sharpen and return to speed.
Beyond Celestine, last year’s Bears do not offer much inspiration. Cal fans may look toward sophomore forward Sam Alajiki, who was a Pac-12 All-Freshman Team honorable mention and a threat from beyond the arc, shooting 20 for 40 from three last season. But his capacity to scale up his shooting and become a threat on a night-in, night-out basis is yet unproven.
Cal may need to turn to its newcomers to take on significant scoring roles. Freshman forwards Grant Newell and ND Okafor have already earned praise from their coaching staff and teammates. Newell, in particular, has taken to his new environment like a duck to water. Crucially, he has an eye for a bucket, averaging ten points in the Bears’ two games of their summer European tour. Newell could very well be Cal’s shining light this season.
Meanwhile, transfer guards Devin Askew and DeJuan Clayton will offer valuable experience –– and in the case of the former, significant potential for growth in the blue and gold. Once the consensus No. 1 point guard of the class of 2021 (before reclassifying to the class of 2020), Askew is looking to reignite his career after one-year stints at Kentucky and Texas. He will bring to Berkeley a pedigree from the very highest echelon of college hoops.
The answer at present to Cal’s crucial question is not particularly resounding. There are potential solutions, but none that match the assurance of their scoring loss.
What is sure, however: When the Bears tip off against Chico State Wednesday night, responsibilities will be completely reallocated compared to last season. Cal will need to establish and impose its new identity from the get-go if it hopes to grasp any chance of success this year.