BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — New coach Mark Madsen recognizes all that went wrong for California men's basketball last season, and he also insists that from those struggles has been tremendous growth.
He's counting on that as Cal tries to bounce back with a new-look roster and new leader.
Even if the loyal fan base in Berkeley might not have seen the development watching the Golden Bears last season. Madsen also realizes he has quite a task at hand to turn over a proud program that is reeling from the embarrassment of so much losing.
Madsen is guiding the Bears following a forgettable 3-29 season — worst in school history — that led to the firing of former coach Mark Fox.
“It was a tough year last year for Cal, but it’s not like there wasn’t a lot of work going on behind the scenes. We’re probably benefiting right now from a lot of the work, just even in terms of infrastructure,” Madsen said. "I’ve never been more optimistic, and I love our team. I love all the changes that have happened."
One of those is the addition of sixth-year guard Keonte Kennedy, a transfer from Memphis with one season of eligibility left after beginning his career at UTEP. After missing the final eight games of the season with a hand injury, he will be counted upon to lead the defensive pressure.
“A lot of teams I played for play fast, and we’re athletic, so we have to get on the rim,” he said. “I think that’s where it came from, just from the heart inside, and stopping the other team's best players.”
When hired, Madsen referred to Cal as a “sleeping giant” of college basketball that will be in contention for the NCAA Tournament by season's end. He fully expects Cal to be a team opponents don't want to face despite the way last season went. Madsen insists the Bears will play with great energy and execute their schemes on both ends.
“We’re not trying to just win -- we have lofty goals coming in,” Madsen said. “So that’s part of the excitement that I feel.”
JOURNEY (BIG) MAN
Sixth-year senior Fardaws Aimaq is reunited with Madsen after three years at Utah Valley before transferring to Texas Tech, where he was limited to 11 games last season because of injuries.
Now, they're back together for the 6-foot-11 forward's final season of eligibility.
If Aimaq can be a force on both ends scoring and rebounding, he will make an immediate impact. He was WAC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in 2020-21 while leading the nation in rebounding (15.0) under Madsen and won defensive honors again the following season as a redshirt junior.
“He’s just so strong and just overpowering,” Kennedy said.
QUITE THE DROUGHT
Cal finished 38-87 under Fox and lost its final 16 games last season. The Bears haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2016 and haven’t won a game in the tournament since 2013.
“Of course it motivated me, but for the most part, definitely flush it all out,” sophomore forward Grant Newell said. “We’re just focused on what we have coming this season. We’re really excited about all the pieces we have, from staff to players, everyone.”
A quick turnaround is the expectation in Berkeley.
Madsen spent time in the NBA’s developmental league and a year at Stanford before spending five seasons on the Lakers staff before moving to college coaching. Hired in 2019 to take over Utah Valley, Madsen went 70-51 over four years with a 28-9 mark last season.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Walk-on big man Gus Larson could provide some key experience and be one of Cal's big surprises. He comes to the Bears as a transfer from Penn and as a redshirt sophomore has three years of eligibility remaining after missing most of last season with an ankle injury as well as being limited by a troublesome back issue.
He also has been outspoken on the importance of mental health.
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