Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton joked when first asked about the realistic goals he has for the Cal basketball program under Mark Fox, saying, "Was one of my options national championship?"
People attending Monday's press conference to introduce Fox laughed. But as Knowlton continued, his comment did not seem entirely facetious.
He went to to compare Cal's situation to Virginia's, saying, "I look at us, and I look at what Virginia does, and I say there's so many similarities, from a school, from an education, those are the things I think are possible here."
Citing Virginia sets a high standard. This year the Cavaliers were ranked among the top six in the final AP poll for the fifth time in the past six years. Virginia will play in the NCAA Tournament Final Four on Saturday, and, as the only No. 1 seed remaining, it has a real chance to win a national championship.
Is that what Knowlton expects?
Virginia reached that level for one simple reason: Tony Bennett.
The Cavaliers had been to the NCAA Tournament only once in the eight years immediately preceding the hiring of Bennett. That's not too far from where Cal has been in recent years, reaching the NCAA Tournament three times in the past eight years.
But can Fox do what Bennett has done? in his first head coaching assignment, Bennett took a Washington State team that had not been to the NCAA Tournament in 12 years to two straight March Madness appearances. Not only did the Cougar make it to the tournament, but they were seeded third and fourth in those two seasons.
It is true that his father, Dick Bennett, had established the style before turning the team over to Tony, and Washington State was a mediocre 17-16 overall and 8-10 in the conference in Tony Bennett's third and final season in Pullman. But to do what Tony Bennett did at Washington State, where basketball success is nearly impossible, speaks to his coaching acumen.
It took time for to Bennett to establish the style of play and add the personnel to play it at Virginia. The Cavaliers went 15-16 overall and 5-11 in the ACC in his first season, and 16-15, 7-9 in his second. He broke through with 22 wins and an NCAA Tournament berth in his third year and has won at least 23 games in each of the seven years since.Virginia has finished first in the ACC regular season four of the past six seasons.
Bennett has done it with defense, as the Cavaliers rank among the nation's leaders in scoring defense every year.
Can Fox do that at Cal since he is a defensive-minded coach like Bennett? Well, Fox took over a Georgia team that had finished last in its six-team division of the SEC five years in a row, and got it to the NCAA Tournament in Fox's second season in Athens. He was not able to sustain it, however. The Bulldogs got to the NCAA Tournament only one other time in his nine seasons at Georgia, which went 7-11 in his final season beforehe was dismissed.
It's probably little comfort that Georgia went 11-21 overall and 2-16 this season in Tom Crean's first season as head coach.
Although few expect the Bears to challenge for a conference title in Fox's first season, it is evident that Knowlton thinks Fox can make a major difference at Cal. Knowlton closed his answer to the question by saying, "I think we can win the Pac-12."