Former Utah Valley coach Mark Madsen brings his former sidekick, Fardaws Aimaq, to a Cal Golden Bears team with the talent to multiply their wins from last year.
How could a 3-win team be a sleeper to make the NCAA Tournament the following year? Because of the transfer portal, that’s how.
Former Utah Valley head coach will once again be paired with his star big man, Fardaws Aimaq. After an injury-filled season at Texas Tech, Aimaq decided to transfer to Cal for his final year of eligibility, along with former Red Raiders teammate Jaylon Tyson.
But that’s not all. Super-scoring guard Jalen Cone will likely share the starting backcourt with Devin Askew, who is returning for another season with the Bears. Former Memphis guard Keonte Kennedy was another pickup by Madsen.
Aside from Askew, the returning pieces are slim, but Grant Newell could be in for a big year. The sophomore averaged 8.0 PPG as a freshman, and won’t have the burden of carrying a lot of the scoring on his shoulders. He’ll also share a frontcourt with Aimaq, who will get most of the attention from opposing teams.
The bench is solid, and Jalen Celestine is another piece to watch. A knee injury kept him out of last season, but the year before, he was a quality rotation player for the Cal Golden Bears. If Celestine is 100%, he could have a much bigger role than currently projected.
Overall, it’s a completely revamped Bears team. Like the transfer portal or not, it certainly can change a program in a very short time, and that seems to be the case with this team.
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Head coach: Mark Madsen (5th season, 1st at Cal)
2022-23 record: 3-29 (2-18)
2023 postseason finish: No postseason
Notable departures: Lars Thiemann (Transferred to Loyola Marymount), Kuany Kuany (Transferred to VCU), DeJuan Clayton (Graduated), Joel Brown (Transferred to Iona), Sam Alajiki (Transferred to Rice)
Notable non-conference games: SoCal Challenge (Nov. 20 & 22), vs. San Diego State (Nov. 25), at Butler (Dec. 9), vs. Ole Miss (Dec. 16)
PG: Devin Askew (6-3, 198, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 15.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.0 APG
SG: Jalen Cone (5-11, 175, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 17.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 40.0 3P% (Northern Arizona)
SF: Jaylon Tyson (6-7, 210, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 10.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.4 SPG, 40.2 3P% (Texas Tech)
PF: Grant Newell (6-8, 220, So.)
2022-23 stats: 8.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.7 APG
C: Fardaws Aimaq (6-11, 245, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 11.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 11 games played (Texas Tech)
2021-22 stats: 18.9 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.3 BPG (Utah Valley)
6: Keonte Kennedy (6-5, 180, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 9.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 38.1 3P% (Memphis)
7: Monty Bowser (6-7, 195, Rs.-Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 3.8 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.4 APG
8: ND Okafor (6-9, 235, So.)
2022-23 stats: 3.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.3 APG
9: Jalen Celestine (6-7, 215, Rs.-Jr.)
2022-23 stats: DNP (Knee injury)
2021-22 stats: 7.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.9 APG, 34.1 3P%
10: Rodney Brown Jr. (6-6, 190, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 181 rated recruit
11: Devin Curtis (6-11, 210, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 208 rated recruit
Cal Golden Bears MVP: Fardaws Aimaq
Aimaq’s lone season at Texas Tech was one to forget, but only because of injuries. When he was healthy to play, he clearly adjusted to the Big 12 perfectly fine. Aimaq averaged double-digits in points and didn’t miss a beat on the glass. While he was healthy enough to play, I’m sure an offseason of more recovery and rehabilitation will go a long way. I’m expecting closer numbers to his years at Utah Valley.
Aimaq will also be in a comfortable situation, with his former coach, a Texas Tech teammate, and two upperclassmen in the starting backcourt. You couldn’t be in a better situation for a big man.
Let’s also not forget that Aimaq isn’t just a post-up player. He has some range, even out to the three-point line. While his double-double numbers can be out of this world, he’s a pretty complete player, and might give Cal their best one-two punch along with Askew, since Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, or even since Leon Powe was in town.
Cal Golden Bears make-or-break player: Jalen Cone
On paper, the Cal Golden Bears have an extraordinary backcourt. But how will the 5-11 guard adjust to the Pac-12?
Considering Cone averaged 8.0 and 9.2 PPG in two years at Virginia Tech, I’d say it should be pretty seamless. The only knock on Cone’s game at VTech was his inefficiency from the field, and that didn’t really change at Northern Arizona. With Cone, you have to put up with his wild two-point shots and fall in love with his consistency from deep. At 5-11, finishing at the rim won’t be easy, but the further away he steps back, Cone is like Cal’s version of Isaiah Thomas (the Boston one).
Cone could also rise above – no pun intended – and virtually share the point guard position with Askew. He’s more than capable of running the show, and it could help both players in the process, and make it tough to fully scout Cal as a team.
Cone’s height will always be the topic of discussion, but if he plays to his abilities, he can be the guy to take the Bears over the top.
Key analytic: Rebounds per game
In the two years Aimaq was in town at Utah Valley, the Wolverines finished the season 35th and 8th in rebounds per game. Last season, without Aimaq, they found a way to finish 4th.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. The Madsen/Aimaq combo is sure to bring that Utah Valley feel to Cal this season, and winning the boards is the number one thing to look at.
Last year, Cal was 332nd in RPG, averaged about 10 less than Utah Valley, and were one of the worst rebounding teams in the country. Aimaq will certainly help change that, but it’s worth nothing the rest of Cal’s big team. With the exception of Cone, all of Cal’s projected starters and rotation players are 6-3 or taller. Most of their wings and forwards are tall, lengthy, or both. If your team plays Cal, they better plan on wearing some extra padding, because the Bears will play aggressive and value controlling the boards.
Cal Golden Bears 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 9th in Pac-12
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament – Sweet 16