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Bears drift down coast for SoCal Challenge

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Cal basketball is heading south for the winter.

The Bears will compete in the SoCal Challenge in sunny San Juan Capistrano. Cal’s first game is against UTEP at 9:30 p.m. this Monday.

The tournament is split into the “Surf” and “Sand” divisions. The two groups are in separate brackets, and the tournament awards a champion of each division. The Bears are in the surf division for their first appearance in the SoCal Challenge. If they beat UTEP, they will face the winner of Bradley vs. Tulane for the surf division title at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The two losers will fight for third place in a consolation game right after the title match.

Cal head coach Mark Madsen has led his team to a promising start, both on and off the court. After a truly miserable 3-29 season last year, Cal has new life. Jalen Cone, a new arrival in Berkeley, has already felt embraced. The fifth-year transfer from Northern Arizona got off to a rough start wearing blue and gold. In his Bears debut against St. Thomas, he missed his first five field goal attempts and didn’t score until the second half. This could have been a step in the wrong direction for a player just finding his footing. Cone told reporters how it went a different way instead.

“I know you all probably remember the first game I couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean. But the whole time, my teammates, Coach Madsen and all the coaches were telling me, ‘Keep shooting, you’re going to help us win this ballgame,’ ” Cone said. “And when you’re just playing for a staff like that and playing alongside players who just believe in you, they make the game fun and they make the game easy, and I just know eventually the shot is going to fall.”

Spoiler alert: the shot did fall. A week after the St. Thomas game, Cone lit up CSU Bakersfield for seven threes on sixteen attempts. He was one make away from tying a school record. Cone also crushed a new school record with his 16 attempts, a level of confidence that not every transfer would feel in a new environment. But clearly, this is a team that wants its players to feed into their strengths. Shooters shoot.

Madsen’s wins on his new team have been defined by a willingness to adjust and adapt. In the season opener against St. Thomas, he told reporters that his team tried four defensive schemes before finding one that could slow down the Tommies’ three-point attack. CSU Bakersfield attempted 20 free throw attempts in their first half against Cal. Madsen told the press that he addressed the issue at halftime and was pleased when a reporter confirmed that the Bears cut down on the fouls in the second half.

The Bears have a new head coach and three new transfers added to the starting lineup in Cone, Jaylon Tyson and Fardaws Aimaq. They will only improve with chances to play together. Madsen pointed out how Tyson, in particular, has excelled despite not being allowed to participate in scrimmages against Division I competition. After the win against Bakersfield, Madsen marveled at Tyson’s excellent performance despite the fact that he is “still finding his rhythm.”

Cone says that while much of the team is playing together for the first time, the Bears’ overall experience is still paying dividends.

“When you play alongside our older group, everybody’s so mature. We kind of keep each other calm and collected. And the biggest thing on the floor, we just stick together,” Cone said.

Cal will get its franchise’s first experience in the SoCal Challenge, in the Bears’ first chance to win a tournament in this bright, new era.

Contact Casey Grae at