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It's tough to call last week's slate a success, since A) ucla sucks & B) they beat us. Cal rebounded nicely from the absolutely brutal loss to the bruins by beating a more formidable opponent, usc, on Saturday, but you only get so many home games against the bottom of the conference. On paper, the home game against ucla was the easiest on our conference schedule, so Wednesday's loss hurts beyond the visceral, I can't believe we lost to these ass-clowns again! reaction. It's Cal's first real blemish of the season, and when you don't have a marquee win (sadly, beating Iowa State at home does not qualify), you need to avoid bad losses. One loss probably won't keep Cal out of the tournament, but this one will hurt our seeding.
If you are a masochist and want to relive that loss, here's Avinash's recap, and here's Avinash's breakdown with a ranty podcast from yours truly. I really recommend not clicking on either of these links, though Avinash gets points for the perfect caption for this photo: "Oh, kill me now."
You can point to many reasons for ucla coming up with their miraculous victory against our bears, like their ridiculous second half shooting (7-9 from three!!), our terrible shooting (2-18 from three for the game), our terrible defense, and our lack of Jorge. All are valid, and correcting any of them would have given Cal the victory. A lot has to go wrong in order to lose to a bottom dweller (and it does feel good to call ucla a bottom dweller) at home.
The greater issue was Jerome Randle not playing like himself, because he was throwing up during the game. Simply put, without Randle playing at an all conference level, and without Harper Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez, Cal is not a very good team. We should have beaten ucla despite these problems, but the team Cal fielded on Wednesday night probably wouldn't finish much better than the middle of the conference.
Missing Harper Kamp has been a bigger problem than many realize. At the pregame party (hosted by your Cal Alumni Association), Jay John called Kamp "one of the two best defenders at his position I've ever seen". Now, Jay John coached some pretty terrible OSU teams, so he's not saying that much, but Harper's absence has created a serious void on this team. That was painfully evident against ucla as freshman Reeves Nelson had plenty of room in the paint against Cal's front line. Boykin is a good shooter, but Harper is a better passer, rebounder, and defender, and he's way ahead of everyone on the team at interior defense.
As an aside, the last time Jay John spoke at the pregame hoops party was before the OSU game last year. Jay, you're a great and hilarious speaker, but don't come back.
The refs did Cal no favors on Wednesday (aside from a generous charge drawn by Jerome Randle on Malcolm Lee, under the Cal basket), which is typical of playing against ucla. In the second half, Cal was whistled for some pretty harmless touch fouls while ucla was free to body check Cal players in the paint. Howland's "physical" defense is predicated upon a lot of body contact against opposing shooters, which is less obvious (and just as much of a foul) but more effective than reaching in. As a result, ucla gets away with a lot more than they should, as when Randle was sent sprawling during a successful lay in during the second half but not awarded the "and one", while Christopher was called for a block when he simply used the baseline to force Jerime Anderson out of bounds.
Following the loss, I was lamenting that we always seem to be on the wrong side of these games when I remembered last year's triple overtime victory over UW in Seattle, highlighted by DJ Seeley's "old fashioned" three point play with one second remaining in the second overtime. Recalling that game is about the only positive I can find from our latest heartbreaking loss to the small, dickless, bears.
The usc game was much better, because we didn't lose to ucla in crushing fashion, and because we won. It wasn't going well, with Cal down 50-43 midway through the second half. Usc is a great defensive team and they had longer, bigger, and more athletic players than Cal at every position except point guard. The easiest way to score against a great defense is to get points in transition, but in order to do that, you have to stop the other team from scoring. Usc scored on 9 of their first 10 possessions in the second half.
Cal's high scorers from Saturday's game. Theo played all 40 minutes, Jerome's stomach was "still bubbling".
Out of a timeout, Cal went to a 3-2 zone for one possession and forced Dwight Lewis into an off-balance jumper, which he missed. On the next usc possession, star guard Nikola Knezevic took over the assignment on Dwight Lewis. Lewis had been quite hot up to this point, shooting 6-9 against a pretty hapless Patrick Christopher. Lewis shot only 2-7 for the remainder of the game, and one of his buckets came when Christopher was switched back onto him. Knezevic has his limitations - namely, he can't score - but he was absolutely the key to the game. He face guarded Lewis to prevent him from getting the ball, he hounded Lewis when he received the ball - at one point, he forced a travel when Lewis jumped and was unable to shoot or pass. Without his defense on Lewis, Cal loses this game.
As the Cal defense started to get some get some stops, the Cal offense found easier shots and better chances. This spurred on the crowd, which was truly loud for this first time in two games, which spurred on the defense, and etc. Even Monty was fired up; after Theo took a charge on Leonard Washington, Monty stomped around the sideline doing the first down gesture. Cal went on a 16-1 run to take a 59-51 lead and coasted to victory.
This was Nikola's best game since leading Cal to a comeback win against Missouri a few hours after Cal lost Big Game back in 2007, which he mentioned in the post game interview. That game was the subject of my first post as an author on the old blogsome site, so it holds a special place in my heart. As a sophomore, Nikola led the charge in that game both offensively and defensively while Randle, also a sophomore, turned the ball over a lot. Randle will finish his career as one of Cal's all time leading scorers, while Nikola's best game in more than two years has a line of 14 minutes, 2 points, and 1 rebound. Those stats do not nearly do justice to the impact that Nikola had on Saturday's game, but it's a pretty large understatement to say that Randle has been the better player throughout his Cal career. Someone watching that Missouri game two years ago would have had difficulty predicting how their careers played out.
George-Michael Bluth, what could have been!
With the not too surprising news that Jorge will miss this week's Washington trip, Nikola will again have a chance to be a major contributor. He's certainly earned some minutes, and as long as he avoids things like shooting or dribbling the ball, he'll be an asset.
Go Bears, Go George-Michael, sweep Washington.