Tonight's game was one of those benchmarks where you figure out who you are and where you are. The Aztecs are a deep, experienced, and talented squad who deserve their #14 ranking.
In an interesting twist, SDSU's best players appeared to be their bigs and their small forward. Usually, we're overmatched on the perimeter and have an edge down low. It was an interesting strength on strength match-up. Initially, they disrespected our bigs and played behind them. Kamp and MSF more than held their own. However, we didn't have anyone who could match-up w/ Leonard. Trying Jorge there early got him in foul trouble because of his overly physical/aggressive play. Crabbe and all of the other young guys were simply outmatched. This is going to be an issue all the year when we play wings with some size. (Klay Thompson scariness quotient just went up.) To be fair, Leonard hit some really tough shots with guys in his face. He looks legit.
MSF's reported issues w/ plantar fascitis and achilles tendonitis are a big deal. Both conditions require at least 4-8 weeks of rest of heal...and we haven't hit the heart of the season yet. Without him, we lose our best low post scorer, 2nd best rebounder, and a lot of experience. As a long-time Cal fan...kind of not surprised.
The Aztecs got a lot of offensive boards early, but missed most of their put-backs. Although our bigs are checking theirs, we were out-hustled by their wings. Eventually this led to second chance points, including a few open threes. This has got to drive Monty crazy.
On offense, we started with our high-low look instead of the double low look. Monty seems to favor double low post when we have an advantage and the high-low look when we're even. Our best entry passes are typically from our bigs at the high post.
Interestingly enough, we used some zone as a change-up, but primarily went man to man. Looks like Monty felt like our bigs could match up down low and was hoping that our perimeter guys could step up to the challenge. He's using Solomon to back up Kamp and Bak Bak to back up MSF...Makes sense since Solomon is a bit better on D while Bak Bak has more skill on O. Early in the year, he was using Solomon to back up both spots. Then last game it was primarily Bak Bak. I like this move - both young players need time to develop.
Franklin was forcing things again. His shot selection was questionable at best. And some of his bad shots lead to transition buckets for SDSU. Sigh. Classic Franklin sequence. Pulls up for a bad 3. Get's blocked. But hustles back on D, gets a steal, then drives 1 on 3 and gets a bail out foul. To the line for 1/2. Woo! Even so, it was noteworthy that Monty let Franklin bring the ball up at times to take pressure off of Jorge. Franklin is clearly better suited at 2G right now (as evidenced by more than one turnover), but it seems to suggest that Monty knows that Jorge is a miscast at the point and is at his best when he can play off the ball. I have to respect the coach for trying to develop his young talent and living with the mistakes.
How we didn't get blown out in the 1st half is somewhat perplexing. Jorge out w/ foul trouble. Very little productive from Crabbe/Franklin - in fact, Franklin gave them points from bad shots and turnovers. No production from Smith. No production from the bench gang of Bak Bak, Carter, Murray, and Solomon. But, we hustled on D. Hit the glass. And we scratched our way into keeping it close. Our 1st half in a microcosm: Jorge forces the action but somehow draws a foul on a 3...Hits 3 free throws. Somehow, we were only down 2. I'll take it. Skill will come with time. For right now, I appreciate effort and heart.
I really like how even though they're supposed to have the advantage down low, we didn't back down. We continued to try to pound it inside. Even though they're the better team that plays better team ball, has more experience, and an NBA-level talent...We're hung around and made it into an ugly game...turned it from a contest of skill into a contest of wills. For a time, it looked like we might have a chance.
Gotta give some love to MSF. He's clearly limited and had to go out more than once because of foot pain. But, he insisted on going back in. Not sure if that's a good move, long-term. Sadly enough - we might be better off sitting him until Pac-10 play. Unfortunately, his injury coincided with a decisive SDSU run that broke the game open.
The Aztecs ultimately turned the game by taking advantage of our young players in the transition game. Missed baskets on penetration or quick jumpers are lead to easy transition buckets on the other end. With a hiccup, a close game gets blown open to a 14 point deficit.
We hung tough for the 1st half and most of the 2nd. But when MSF went down, our inside-out game went away. Jorge was tough all game long, but just wasn't able to carry the whole load by himself and forces things at times. Crabbe struggled early and stopped looking for his shot. And Franklin had another game where he pressed and made some bad decisions. Monty finally had to sit him. Unfortunately, neither Carter nor Murray offered a lot in his place. Our ball movement really seems to depend on having our three veterans on the floor. I'm not sure if the young guys are just a little slower with knowing where to go with the ball, aren't setting good screens, or aren't using screens properly to get open, but the offense grinds to a screeching halt. The Aztecs weren't doing anything fancy - just playing good team defense with fundamentally sound rotations and help.
Although playing with a bad ankle and clearly still more comfortable off the ball, Jorge really battled. He's showing a surprising improvement in his outside shot, particularly coming off screens. If Smith or Franklin can handle the ball, it really helps Jorge play to his strengths. He's best in transition or off the ball. As the main guy, it seems to slow him down. It's as if the extra responsibilities take away the instincts and aggression that make him tough.
Back-breaking sequence: The Bears cut the lead to single digits. Crabbe over-dribbles, turns it over and it leads to a fast-break layup on the other end. On the next play, Franklin over-dribbles, turns it over and leads to a fast-break dunk. Ball-game.
Solid point guard play continues to be an issue. Our young wings are inconsistent with their decision-making. Similarly, our bigs depend on having guys deliver the ball to them on time and in a good position. Unfortunately, without firm leadership on offense, our guys get in trouble more often than not when they try to make plays on their own.
Our lack of experienced depth was the difference. Our starters did a nice job hanging around and battling despite injury and foul trouble. But when MSF went down, our rotation was affected and we started struggling with our rebounding and rotations. On offense, our lack of inside game led to wings trying to do too much...bad shots or turnovers and transition buckets. Unfortunately, both Kamp and Jorge are gamers, but would be best as secondary players. Our youth dictates that they need to try to carry the load. It's hit or miss. Despite the final margin, this wasn't a blow-out game. They pulled away steadily because our young guys and bench simply couldn't keep pace.
It's a bit concerning that the conference season hasn't started yet, but MSF is definitely hobbled and Jorge is already showing signs of wear. The young guys looked like they were out of their league - just consistently outplayed on both ends by more savvy players who are used to playing together. As expected, it'll be growing pains all year. One thing that remains enjoyable to watch is the effort. There doesn't seem to be any quit in these young Bears. I'm looking forward to see them get better under Monty's tutelage. Time to bounce back against Southern Miss. Go Bears!