Now the race to March begins.
I wasn't too bummed that the Bears couldn't close out against Arizona--it was a weird, helter-skelter, foul-ridden game that could've gone either way, and Nic Wise ended up winning the crucial point guard battle over Jerome Randle, so I felt the Wildcats earned this one more than the Bears blew it. I was far from happy with our shot selection in the final minutes, and I don't think Monty did a good job late--Max probably should've been in late instead of Amoke or Boykin to guard the rim, and I didn't like the trapping scheme we threw at them at all--but we had a chance to win with 20 seconds left on the road and it just didn't work out for us. Oh wells. So it's been for us much of the year.
Of course it's disappointing that Cal has had two winnable games and lost them in the final minutes, but the fact is the Bears are exactly where they want to be at the end of January--right at the top of the Pac-10. If Cal replicates their efforts from January into February, then they'll likely control their own destiny from here to March, and it'll be up to another team to take the mantle from us. Right now, Arizona looks like the worthiest competitor, but next week it could be UCLA, and the next week it could be Washington. Cal's best formula to success is to keep on winning and not worry about what anyone else is doing.
Let's try to test our Golden Bears hoops IQ before we go through our second round of the conference schedule. I've come to peace with what our team will be doing the rest of the year, and what our team won't be doing. Hopefully you can too.
1) Cal will lose games they shouldn't: FACT. Whether we like it or not, Cal's dependence on jump shots (not just 3s but long 2s too) means we're going to have one night where Randle goes 3 for 13, Robertson 1 for 7 and let some mediocre squad play their way to an upset bid. It's part of the reason the Bears got swept by an awful Beavers team last year and part of the reason they fell to UCLA this year--when the shots aren't going in on any given night, any team can beat us.
I'm warning you right now, Cal will lose at least one game in February they shouldn't. We're always running at the razor's edge with these Bears. So if you're not happy with nailbiters or blown double-digit leads, you'd better jump off the bandwagon and start thinking about the starting quarterback for September, because you're going to get burned hard at least once. (On the flip side, we could end up winning some other games by 30-40 points when we get going, so there's always those games to look forward to!)
2) Cal is too dependent on the jump shot: FACT, sort of. Like it or not, Cal has no reliable post players. It's a problem you'll see not just with the Bears, but with the rest of the Pac-10. The fact that Jamal Boykin and Max Zhang have had marquee moments inside speaks more to the quality of the rest of the conference bigs than the quality of ours. Boykin is a very small 4 playing deep minutes at the 5, and Zhang has barely any offensive moves at all. So we have no choice but to go outside-in with our offense rather than inside-out, and we end up with an offense that can amaze at times, infuriate at others.
Put it this way, would you rather see us run plays for Max or MSF? Okay, other than the factor of awesome it would be to see baby Yao develop right before us, would it really help our team if we tried to forcefeed him in the post while at the same time depriving the ball from the hands of our most reliable scorers? Right now Zhang is good at cleaning up, but he just isn't there yet at anything. Sanders-Frison looks like he'll need another year before he can be any sort of low post threat; any possession he gets under the basket is like watching Kendrick Perkins, only if Perkins weighed 50 more pounds and was wearing bricks on his shoes.
Without a reliable post man to get easy points inside, we always have to depend on long shots (which we're usually efficient at, but we're capable of stinking it up from there) and dribble-drive penetration (easier shots, but depends a lot on our athleticism, and Randle, Robertson and Christopher are only average athletically). Boykin might have his moments, but he's not a post player and often depends a lot on his own jump shot or getting fed the ball by the slashers rather than actual one-on-one moves.
Case in point: The Bears couldn't hit a shot from outside or inside for a twenty minute stretch and let Arizona hang around, hang around, hang around. Obviously games like this are the extremes, but after Boykin, Christopher and Randle had efficient, excellent games against ASU, it's not surprising they regressed to the mean (and vice-versa for Theo balling it up). The fact is you want these guys taking the shots at those places most of the time. That's what they're good at, that's what makes this team go.
So when you see the Bears get hot and take a double digit lead and summarily lose it, Cal isn't really blowing the leads; it's just the ebb and flow of Cal's offense against opposing defenses. Sometimes the shots go in, sometimes they pop out, other times they come in barrages, other times they don't. You never know what to expect from these Bears.
3) The Bears doesn't know how to close a game: MYTH. Yes Cal has blown a couple of winnable games against UCLA and Arizona, but it's not likely we were dominating these games in any manner
But those who think we're a bunch of chokers are being really selective, highlighting the games we've barely lost as opposed to the big games we've pulled out. What about the win against Wazzu where Cal managed to outscore the Cougars, or running back and clamping down on USC late in the second half, or Jorge and Theo nailing big 3s against the Sun Devils and the Beavers respectively. The Bears might not be the most talented or athletic team in the conference, but they are the most experienced, and so far they're 4-2 in close conference games (if you include Murray State, 5-2 in close games altogether).
4) Cal doesn't win big games: You're kidding me. I should punch you in the face if you ever try to argue this. What the hell is a big game to you? One that gets ton of media pub (which would be none of our games since no one cares about the Pac-10)? Or is it just a big game to you because we lost?
Beating Arizona State on the road in Tempe as underdogs--that's a big win. Beating Washington State without Jorge--that's a big win. Grinding through ugly games against USC and Oregon State with short rotations and worn-out seniors--those are big wins. People who say Cal doesn't win big games are miserable fucks who have their heads screwed on too tightly. Which happens to be half our fanbase these days.
(We could say the same thing about our whiny football fans, but that's for another day.)
5) Cal is in serious danger of missing the NCAA tournament: NOT YET. If there's any benefit to playing those tough games early on, Cal's RPI is through the roof and miles better than anyone else's in the Pac-10. They are the only team in the conference who doesn't necessarily have to win the Pac-10 tournament to earn a bid to March Madness--as long as they hang steady and win another seven, eight games, the Bears should still be ok.
I think Arizona is going to win 6 games down the stretch. I think they’ll split the Washington trip, beat the Oregons at home, lose 2 of 3 from ASU, @ Cal, @ Stanford, and beat the LA schools at home.
None of the 4-5 teams is going 8-1 down the back half, so that eliminates them immediately. UCLA sucks and will not be the beneficiaries of insane luck in the second half. ASU has the potential to go 7-2 but I see them basically matching Arizona’s record down the stretch and thus finishing a game behind their travel partner.
Now, as for Cal, the team should win 4 of the 5 remaining road games but winning on the road is tough so I’ll scale it back to 3 wins. That means 3 home wins to share the title or a sweep to take it outright. Clearly a sweep is possible but 3 wins might be more likely.
I think Cal is more likely than any other team to win the title outright, but a split title (probably with Arizona) would not surprise me at all.
And the schedule does look favorable for them--after their game at USC, Cal will probably be favored in every remaining game. Only injuries and atrocious shooting over the next month can derail their bid for the Dance. However, there's still a lot of dancing left to do on the floor. It's time to sweep the conference off its feet Bears.