Cal men’s basketball has a critical affliction: It has the tendency to make mediocre opposition look like the Showtime Lakers.
The Bears took on Southern University on Monday, yet another home game against should-be lesser competition, and Cal fans were hoping that the blue and gold would finally click into gear and remedy their season-opening woes.
This would be misplaced trust: No matter its matchup this season, Cal has unfalteringly displayed the same fatal qualities that make it impossible to win games.
From the opening tip, Southern established absolute control over the Haas Pavilion floor. The Jaguars’ high-octane game never gave Cal the time to breathe. Defensively, they cycled between full-court and half-court presses that thwarted the Cal offense (which has been defunct all season) and produced frequent turnovers; offensively, they circulated the ball with exceptional speed to pry open Cal’s defense and find open shots. Brion Whitley was on the end of many Southern possessions, and he ended the half with 9 points on 4-7 shooting.
Cal, overrun on its home court, trailed 38-26 at the half — a familiar position for this season’s Bears who have struggled to settle into games.
This time, however, Cal could not initiate its trademarked second-half turnaround. Even as team-leading scorer Devin Askew put on a shooting clinic, scoring 17 points in the final 20 minutes, Southern’s offense kept pace. The Jaguars shot 60% from three-point range in the same span to deny Cal any foothold for a comeback.
After a back-and-forth second half where both defenses were equally ineffectual, Cal fell 74-66 at the final whistle.
“I can’t put a defense together that gives us a chance to win,” said head coach Mark Fox. “We allowed 12 three-point makes, we repeatedly failed to guard the three-point line, and I’ve got to find a way to get that done. You cannot win if you allow three-point makes like that, you cannot win if you have 20 turnovers. So I’ll take responsibility for that.”
Cal’s systemic defensive failures were indeed the decisive culprit in its loss, but the blow cuts much deeper: Every passing game in which Cal suffers from sloppy turnovers, the lack of a secondary scorer beyond Askew and lapses in defensive concentration cement these issues as inherent to this year’s team.
“I’m asking Devin Askew to do everything,” coach Fox said. “He had seven turnovers tonight, but he had 21 points. He’s having to do too much, so some of that is to be expected, because we’re asking him to do more than is probably fair.”
Now, Texas State lies ahead. Monday, the Bears will host yet another beatable team: The Bobcats lost by 22 to Washington State, the Pac-12 program whose record most closely resembles Cal’s. Still, there is little evidence to suggest that Cal has what it takes to conceal its glaring shortcomings and outplay an opponent over a 40-minute game.
Even if the Bears can pull off a miraculous win against Texas State, they will surely be humbled once again when they commence tournament and conference play in the following week.
“We don’t have a bunch of confidence,” coach Fox said. “But you’re not going to get confident until you get good at something and you fight through something.”
The loss column grows, and the season continues to pass by without Cal grabbing on to this vital confidence. The light at the end of the tunnel shines dimly — if there’s any at all.