While his wife begins the search for a house, new Cal basketball coach Mark Fox has had a busy first month on the job, splitting his time between hiring a staff, getting to know his team and hitting the road to recruit.
In a wide-ranging, sit-down interview, Fox said his top priority has been the Bears’ current players, including a couple of them who haven’t decided whether they will play here next season or find a new home.
“We’ve really tried to focus our energy first on our team,” Fox said. “Trying to make sure we put our arms around these young people to make sure they know what the future’s going to look like.”
Rising junior forward Justice Sueing, the team’s top scorer and rebounder, and 7-foot-4 center Connor Vanover, who showed great promise as a freshman, both have entered their names into the NCAA transfer portal. Both have looked at other schools; neither has announced a decision.
Sueing is known to have visited San Diego State. Vanover reportedly is considering Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
“We gave them our blessing, after what they went through, to take a look around,” Fox said. “But also to give us an opportunity to build a relationship with them and coach those kids.”
With more than 700 players across the country in the transfer portal, Fox knows this isn’t strictly a Cal issue. He called it “the new norm.”
Minus Sueing and Vanover, the Bears project having just eight fully committed scholarship players for next season. That breaks down to six returnees (Grant Anticevic, Paris Austin, Matt Bradley, Jacobi Gordon, Juhwan Harris-Dyson and Andre Kelly) and two incoming freshmen (Joel Brown and D.J Thorpe).
Fox said he’s not concerned with having a certain minimum number of players next season, and is likely to hold back one or two scholarships because Austin is the only senior on next year’s roster.
The Bears will not be in a panic to sign players simply to fill out the roster, Fox stressed.
“We have to build this the right way so once it’s built it can stay built,” he said. “Obviously, if you’re just trying to put together a team you can patch a few band-aids together. But eventually all houses of cards fall down.”
He acknowledged things won’t all come together right away after the Bears posted a combined record of 16-47 in two seasons under former coach Wyking Jones.
“It’s going to be a journey. It’s going to be a battle.”
Likewise, Fox explained that bringing in grad transfers who can play immediately is not as easy at some schools, including Cal, as it is elsewhere. Those players face a stiff test gaining admission into grad programs at Berkeley.
He said Cal has a “narrow lane” for graduate transfers.
“This is a real university, which I really appreciate. Some places can take a grad transfer and just put them in a weekend Masters program, where they really only have to go to class for a couple weekends and there really are no admission standards,” Fox said. “We’re not going to operate that way.”
Fox said he has already changed the basketball team’s weight program and during the four or five on-court workout sessions allowed by the NCAA he’s introduced concepts he hopes the players will work on over the next month before reconvening here during the summer.
He’s been encouraged by the attitude of Cal’s returning players.
“They were tremendously receptive. They’ve been very coachable and very open to anything we’ve given them,” he said. “So I was really pleased with their response.”
In terms of how the Bears will play the game, Fox said one thing will be emphasized from Day 1. “We’ve got to make our defense better.”
How the Bears operate offensively won’t be determined until the roster is finalized. Either way, Fox added, “It won’t be how we eventually play on offense only because one day we’ll have a deeper team.”