Why Isn’t California Basketball a Monster?

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 25th, 2016

During the Glory Years of Cal basketball, Pete Newell had the Bears playing at an elite level year after year. How elite? Newell’s Golden Bears beat John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins eight straight times before Newell retired. He took the Bears to four NCAA Tournaments (1957-60), landed consecutive Final Four appearances (1959-60, and won the 1959 National Championship. Those were to be his final four years in Berkeley, and Cal hasn’t come anywhere near those highs since. In fact, Cal went nearly 30 seasons without a single NCAA Tournament appearance after Newell’s departure, and even considering a few lesser peaks through the Todd Bozeman, Ben Braun, and Mike Montgomery eras, at no point has Cal again been considered among the top programs in college basketball.

Pete Newell Was the Only Coach Who Dominated John Wooden

Pete Newell Was the Only Coach Who Dominated John Wooden

And that brings us to Cuonzo Martin.

There are many moving parts to putting together a successful basketball program, but time and again everything tends to come down to two questions: Do you have the right guy, and do you have enough money? The right guy, of course, plays a big role in answering the latter question. First, he needs to build an identity (that tends to focus on a specific side of the ball), some attribute, or sometimes just a pace of play. Think about Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams as physical, Mike Krzyzweski’s ruthlessly prolific motion offense at Duke, or Jim Boeheim’s zone defense at Syracuse. What can we say about Martin’s “brand” of basketball?  He’s only in his third season at Berkeley. In season one, the Bears ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.  In season two, thanks to the arrivals of Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, Cal qualified for the NCAA Tournament on the backs of the fourth-best offensive efficiency and best defensive efficiency in the league.

There are programs in the Pac-12 in which systematic hurdles can conspire to thwart program building.  Think Stanford’s academic restrictions, Washington State’s geographic exile and USC’s 1000 percent commitment to football.  Yet all three have put together respectable runs at times in their modern history.  What’s stopping Cal from regularly competing for conference titles and annual NCAA Tournament runs?

I talked to Ryan Gorcey of bearterritory.net.  Gorcey knows Cal hoops inside and out and I wanted to run some of the potential obstacles to Cal’s long-term success by him.  First, with regard to competitive coaching salaries, Gorcey reported that Cuonzo Martin makes $1.9 million, which sits “in the top half of the nation, based on publicly released data from public institutions.” As far as assistants, he notes that Cal likely sits in the “in the lower half, likely the middle third” in terms of assistant coaching salaries.  That brings us to facilities.  Per Gorcey, Haas Pavilion underwent a $10 million upgrade which improved the game experience (center-hung scoreboard, upgraded acoustics and press area) but didn’t improve its practice facility. Men’s basketball shares practice space with women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, and apparently the rest of the Cal student body, though it is doubtful intramural badminton matches cut into the Bears’ practice time.

The lack of a fancy new facility is relevant, especially among the upper echelon of college basketball. What’s more important, however, is the academic restrictions Cal sets for its prospective student-athletes, both as individuals and as a whole. Athletes must have a 3.0 GPA in high school, and those that don’t can still get in but it can be a tricky needle to thread. One criteria for admission without the requisite GPA is the past academic performance of individuals at Cal who profiled similarly to the athlete in question. Because of this, argues Gorcey, the sterling academic performance of Brown as a freshman last year is a big bargaining chip Martin can use when he attempts to get future one-and-dones admitted. Nevertheless, it’s clear Cal’s available pool of talent is not nearly as deep as those of the top teams in either the Pac-12 or nationally.

With Rabb back and Jabari Bird not far behind him, Cal unquestionably has enough top shelf talent to compete this year. Whether they have enough depth remains a question, but the longview seems clear. The realities at Cal that also make it UC Berkeley make sustaining elite status very difficult, but if Martin keeps the program on its current arc, there’s no reason the Bears can’t regularly be a top-half Pac-12 team and regular NCAA Tournament participant. Cal the institution has to want the bar to be raised higher, and at present, there’s no sign that big-time hoops success is a priority among the powers that be.

Richard Abeytia (41 Posts)

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