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Cal Basketball Notebook: Progress in 2021-22 Starts with Improving on Defense

Coach Mark Fox hopes a more athletic, versatile team will make the Bears tougher.

From Day 1 of his first season as Cal’s basketball coach, Mark Fox has emphasized defense.

In 2019-20, the Bears made some progress from the season before, holding opponents to 69.1 points per game on 43.0-percent shooting and 36.3 percent from the 3-point. Not great numbers, but a start.

Then the pandemic hit and the Bears — with no offseason time in a real weight room and diminished opportunity to become fully conditioned — suffered on defense. Opponents shot 46.4 percent from the field and made 37.4 percent of their 3-point tries — numbers that both ranked at the bottom of the Pac-12.

“It’s going to be important that we improve there,” Fox said last week at Pac-12 media day. “Our defensive numbers have to be better because if you’re not going to be good on the defensive end, you don’t give yourself a chance to win. So certainly that’s a focus with this group.”

A close-to-normal offseason will provide a boost as the Bears try to turn around a 9-20 record that was the program's fourth straight losing season. So will a roster that Fox believes will allow the Bears to be more athletic, longer and more versatile.

In particular, three freshmen could alter the equation. Guard Marsalis Roberson is 6-foot-6 and forwards Sam Alajiki and Obinna Anyanwu are both 6-7.

“I think we have far better physical matchups across the board with this group,” Fox said. “We’ve been intentional about trying to get a bunch of 6-5 to 6-8 athletic guys who can be interchangeable and versatile.

“And those three freshmen fit that mold. We do have versatility with this group that hopefully we can use to our advantage.”

Fox has conceded that the Bears were physical enough, quick enough, athletic enough. And they lacked versatility that would help them adjust to different types of opponents.

“At this level, you’re not going to win the style of play battle every night,” he said. “There’s going to be nights when we play the game as we want to play it. But there’s going to be nights where other coaches and other teams win the style of play battle and you have to be able to adjust.

“The best teams at this level are complete. And they can win fast, they win slow, they can win against man-to-man defense or, they can win against zone. You have to be complete to win. And I think this team is more complete.”

Among the team’s 15 scholarship players, more than half of them can be plugged in at more than one position. Fox can choose to play smaller and quicker or a little bigger, although they still will be overmatched physically against certain teams.

MORE ON THE FRESHMEN: Fox chuckles while talking about the Bears’ three freshmen but believes they can impact the team this season.

“Oh, our three freshmen have been amazing,” Fox said. “They all have had some spectacular plays. They’ve all had some pays that remind you that they’re freshmen.

“There’s times they look totally overwhelmed with the complexities of the college game. But, man, I love all three of them.”

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Fifth-year senior forward Grant Anticevich talks in the video about about his impressions of the three freshmen and graduate senior transfer Jordan Shepherd, a shooting guard from Charlotte.

"Jordan Shepherd’s a great player,” Anticevich said. “He’s experienced. He just knows how to play the game. He’s helped us out a lot as a team, just bringing a certain sense of composure. He helps us play as a team. He’s really unselfish, he can score the ball, he can do it all as a player.”

Anticevich also has been impressed with the three rookies.

“They’ve come in and learned a lot in a short time,” Anticevich said. “They all have a lot of potential — they’re athletic, they’re long. They’re going to be great players. They’ve done a great job . . . adjusting to the speed and the pace and intensity and the mindset required by college basketball.”

FEELING REBORN: Every college basketball player and coach is happy to have the COVID-19 pandemic mostly in the rear-view mirror. Fox said he knew the restrictions imposed on his players would make it nearly impossible to compete with the best teams.

“We thought COVID would disrupt us for a year. I didn’t want to to disrupt the path of their lives,” he said. “We just tried to keep them heathy and safe and on track and win as many as we could, knowing that we had some things that were going to be hard to overcome.

“You look at this year because it’s more normal — although it’s not completely normal — it feels like we’ve been reborn.”

KELLY SO READY TO PLAY: Senior forward-center Andre Kelly worked hard in the offseason to improve his fitness, lose weight (he’s now 6-9, 255), improve his mid-range shooting and free throw accuracy, and be more efficient in his footwork in order to create more explosiveness.

He can’t wait to show others — and himself — what the difference will look like on game nights.

“I’m really excited. You train for this all year — it’s nice when the season’s here. I love competing, putting everything I’ve worked for out there,” he said.

"And having fans back adds another element where you can compete and hear them roaring and screaming and it just gets you excited. It’s fun playing in front of everybody.”

Kelly said the Bears are in no way discouraged by the Pac-12 media poll, which projects them to finish solidly in last place this season.

“We might be underestimated in some ways,” he said. “It’s a blessing because then you can only go up and prove everybody wrong. It kind of put the chip our our shoulder.”

Cover photo of Cal coach Mark Fox

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo