Cal started its 2022-2023 campaign with a clean slate. The blue and gold welcomed four new faces over the offseason, with the intention of injecting greater depth and balance to last year’s underwhelming team that finished third to last in the Pac-12. A glimmer of optimism, or at the very least an apprehensive curiosity, surrounded Cal basketball as this year went underway.
Two games into the season, however, the Bears have already begun to tarnish their account. Troubling losses against UC Davis and Kansas State brought to light Cal offense’s crippling lack of firepower and ability to control the tempo.
Tuesday, Cal will face UCSD in a game that is a must-win if it hopes to right the ship. The third winnable game on the bounce and the last game before tournament play begins Nov. 18 — the Bears desperately need to prove to themselves that they are in fact capable of winning games.
Cal’s trip down to La Jolla is critical for its trajectory this season, but the game will also contain an element of revenge. UCSD is a minnow of Division I basketball, only reclassifying to the highest rung of college hoops in 2020 — in this time, however, the Tritons have already bested the Bears. Last year, they snatched an 80-67 upset win in front of the Haas Pavilion crowd, completely playing Cal off its home court in a massive second-half rally.
If the Bears expect to get payback this time around, their performance on Tuesday must be a departure from what they have displayed so far.
Offensively, Cal has an unhealthy penchant for long, ice-cold shooting stretches. In their two games, the Bears have squandered leads and winning chances by failing to hit a field goal for periods of up to over nine minutes. This is symptomatic of Cal’s critical issue: giving scoring help to junior guard and team-leading scorer Devin Askew.
In his few appearances for the blue and gold, Askew has already established himself as the Bears’ offensive hub, but the team has not found a lineup that can pair him with somebody of similar enterprise with the basketball. Senior center Lars Thiemann had an effective 17-point season opener against UC Davis, but Kansas State’s physical defense brought him back down to earth — he contributed a mere 4 points against the Wildcats.
Without a dependable secondary scorer, the Bears have struggled when Askew loses his rhythm or leaves the game. Kansas State knew this much and was more than happy to send a swarm of help defenders Askew’s way when he drove to the basket — they could stop him from reaching the cup or comfortably shooting from mid-range while simultaneously forcing the ball into the hands of Cal’s less-accomplished scorers.
“We have a lot of guys that aren’t experienced scorers yet, and they have to have some game minutes to develop that,” said head coach Mark Fox. “The drought was certainly an issue.”
Tuesday’s game will be a good opportunity for a new offensive leader to step up — the 0-2 Tritons have already been exposed to have a leaky defense, as they conceded a calamitous 92 points in their season opener against Seattle. The Bears’ opposition in La Jolla will be a far cry from what they encountered at home against Kansas State. Still, Cal will have to show growth — something fans have yet to see — if it plans to take advantage of UCSD’s defensive disarray.
Tuesday’s game will determine if the Bears have the capacity to correct course or if rock bottom is even lower than previously thought.