Mike Montgomery wasn't kidding when he said his California Golden Bears would have a lot of growing up to do. Their offense has been scattershot, so you can see four to five minute stretches without field goals. They embrace contact, so their games often turn into free throw shooting contests. The hard physical matchups make many fans wonder if they're playing at Memorial Stadium rather than Haas Pavilion. The result has been an aesthetically unpleasing 7-5 basketball team that is going to test the patience of Cal fans everywhere, growing pains or no growing pains.
So let's look at this team point-by-point.
Cal has played the second toughest strength of schedule of any team from a major conference this season.
Only Tennessee drew a tougher opening slate than Cal, who currently clocks in at fifth overall among all teams. Of Cal's five losses, two have come against undefeated teams (the third ranked Kansas Jayhawks at 11-0 and the seventh ranked San Diego St. Aztecs at 14-0), another against the fifteenth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish at 11-1, and another against a team hovering outside the top 25 in the 10-2 Boston College Eagles. Their fifth loss came to a 9-2 Southern Mississippi Eagles squad that's about their equal. In short, Cal has lost to five teams that have lost a combined five games this season. And have won 55 by extension.
(To discuss the bowl games, scroll down.)
This is a schedule fit for a masochist, and isn't too far off the insane schedule that crippled our team's chances at a deep tournament run last season. So it's not just Cal looking bad, it's the strength of other teams making us look worse than we actually are.
And lest we forget, Cal has quality wins on their resume. They've beaten a ranked team (the 25th ranked Temple Owls at 9-2), and notched two big wins against the 10-2 Iowa St. Cyclones and the 10-2 New Mexico Lobos. It might not be pretty, but the Bears have shown the mettle to beat quality teams too.
Cal is expending most of their energy and execution on the defensive side of the ball. It seems pretty clear when you look at the numbers. Cal's defense is giving up 89.6 points per 100 possessions, good for 30th in the country. Having two defensive-minded guys like Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp leading the way is certainly helpful, and sets the tone for the rest of the team.
It's even more impressive when you realize they've played Boston College (4th best adjusted offense), Kansas (6th), Notre Dame (11th), San Diego State (17th), and New Mexico (35th). Cal shut all those offenses down for long stretches of the game or generally contained them, but just didn't have enough offensively to take advantage except against the Lobos.
You can also see that Cal doesn't go for offensive rebounds much (perhaps to prevent any transition baskets when extra guys crash the boards), or gamble for steals. Nope, it's just pure hustle and effort, keeping their men in front of them and forcing as many tough shots as possible to lengthen the probability our team has a chance to win at the end. Cal's opponents are shooting under 44 percent from two point land and around 31 percent from three point land.
That bodes well down the line for this group, because defensive effort is hard for guys to embrace at the collegiate level, particularly in the man-to-man schemes Mike Montgomery favors (lots of teams laze into an easier-going zone defense). Gotta love it.
This is an excellent team rebounding group. Remember how good Patrick Christopher, Theo Robertson, Omondi Amoke and Jamal Boykin were at making sure our opponents went one-and-done on their possessions? Markhuri Sanders-Frison, Allen Crabbe (who's been a very strong rebounder), Kamp, Gutierrez, even Bak Bak and Richard Solomon off the bench are performing at an equally impressive rate. Our length has been a deceptive advantage in ensuring smaller teams have no chance at garnering second-chance points
Our opponents recognize we commit to the defensive glass, so they have to be very solid in their halfcourt offense. Only four teams in the conference (Washington in particular, but also Arizona, UCLA and Furd) are solid offensive rebounding teams, so this could be a distinct advantage if we can ensure no extra possessions by our opponents.
Offense still offensive. Cal has the worst offense in the Pac-10, behind even the terrible Oregon schools. They're the next-to-last best shooting team, besting only Oregon. They turnover the ball every fourth or fifth possession (again, last place), which makes their defensive efficiency all the more impressive (Cal has been a very savvy fullcourt defense team this year). After being the best three point shooting team in the conference two years running, other than Gutierrez and occasionally Nigel Carter, there's no outside threat for opponents to fear--Gary Franklin and Allen Crabbe are shooting a combined 26.7% from downtown.
It'll probably stay that way all year. Other than Gutierrez [and in a couple of games, Brandon Smith[, no one can really create a shot off their own dribble, and with Jorge, the shot he creates resembles a "Choose Your Own Adventure" storybook. Last year we had four guys who could do that. Gary Franklin is clearly a year away (at the moment he's a jump shooter); while Crabbe's shooting motion is smooth, he only shows his slashing ability in spurts. When your wings are struggling to dribble and drive, and then can't shoot outside either, everything goes into the mud. Brandon Smith is probably going to have to see more time, since he's at least a better defender and passer (if not a capable offensive playmaker).
The biggest underrated problem is the passing of the perimeter guys. The entry passes to Kamp and Sanders-Frison will probably be a work in progress all season, but also the ball reversal doesn't always happen and guys simply force passes.
Bad offense, good defense. And you thought football season was over.
It's the sign of a young team. And just to remind you...Cal was the 18th most experienced team in the country last season. This year? 304th. We'll see more rookie mistakes than savvy veteran decisions, so let's rein in our expectations for what this team can accomplish offensively. This is a defensive team first and foremost, meaning...
Cal this year=less extreme version of USC last year. If you remember, USC was a hard watch last season, because they were abominable on offense but so tough on defense. Mike Montgomery hasn't committed so firmly to the defensive side of the ball as Kevin O'Neill did, but it's clear that this is our calling card this season.
The Washington Huskies and Arizona Wildcats are better than us at both offense and defense, so they should be able to best us. The UCLA Bruins and Washington St. Cougars are strong offensive teams, so their games against us should resemble the painful Cal-USC games we had to bear last year. The USC Trojans have seen a slight dropoff in their defense but a better offense to boot, so our matchups should resemble attrition warfare.
Finally, Arizona St, Stanford, and the Oregon schools all struggle about as much as us offensively, but other than the Beavers, they don't have bad defenses either. Humanitarian aid might be needed for those ones.
It'll be a rough road this year, but a bearable one for sure. Cal is not a tournament team unless they win the Pac-10 tournament, so the big thing will be to rack up the wins and make an NIT/CBI run.
Our first seven games in conference play will determine the course of our season.
Here's our opening stretech.
So much for things easing up once we got to conference play.
Of that stretch, perhaps only the Furd one is eminently winnable. Cal is expect to win none of those games individually and maybe only one or two collectively. Arguably, a record of 2-5 would be highly satisfactory--anything above that would be exceptional. But 1-6 and 0-7 are very very likely. So despite the tough non-conference slate, our tough roads haven't ended yet. Not until the end of the month (when we get four straight home games) will things start looking up.
Our team has a long way to go. But we have a long road ahead with them, so let's go exploring.