Cal Bears Avenge Loss to Bruins, Come Home In First Place

Well, it wasn't how you draw it up, but the Bears are returning home off a tough four-game road trip in sole possession of first place, so I for one can't complain too much.

Looking at the four-game stretch of @ASU, @Arizona, @USC, @UCLA a couple weeks ago, it seemed that an unlikely 4-0 performance would give them complete control of the Pac-10, 3-1 would set them up nicely, 2-2 is where things would get dicey, and 1-3 or worse and ... well, that didn't happen, so I don't want to talk about it.  Turns out, I underestimated the mediocrity of this conference, where merely splitting on the road and waiting for all your rivals to lose is apparently a winning strategy.

But before I get lost in big-picture analysis, there's the little matter of the Bears pulling out a rare win in Pauley Pavilion on Saturday to discuss.  Now, this may be one of the most talent-starved Bruin teams we've seen in quite some time, a young team that has yet to see the high side of .500 this season, but a win in Pauley is still a win on the road against a team that came into the game tied for first place.  The outcome was not a given, and given the way the Bears opened up the game, for a time it looked doubtful.

 

UCLA has had difficulty manning-up on defense all year, so the Bruins have tried to hide their deficiencies by instituting a base zone defense.  What was once fairly exotic in the Pac-10 when Herb Sendek brought it to Arizona State a few years ago has now become fairly commonplace in the conference (in various different flavors, at least), and while the Bears continue to struggle against the zone, the Bruins defense looked thoroughly commonplace in comparison to some that we've seen this year.

The Bears gave themselves an early 3-0 lead with great ball movement and a drive by Patrick Christopher that led to a kickout to Theo Robertson and a wide-open three.  Overall, however, the Bears came out with frustratingly few answers for the Bruins' defense.  Their first four shot attempts were three-pointers, and only the aforementioned shot by Theo went in.  None of the other three shots were rebounded by the Bears.  Jorge turned it over on the next possession, a steal by Malcom Lee that led to two easy points.  Nothing was coming easy.

However, it wasn't just that the Bears weren't getting good shots; they didn't get many opportunities to take them.  There was a TV timeout before the Bears grabbed their first rebound (by Jamal Boykin more than four and a half minutes in), and the Bears missed three more contested jump shots before Jerome Randle was able to put up a three in transition.  By the time Omondi Amoke grabbed the Bears' first offensive rebound (nearly seven minutes in), Cal found themselves down 17-6, and a minute later they were down 22-8 as Michael Roll nailed another three, giving him 10 early points (he would finish with a game-high 22).  The Bears were looking like they were going to be blown out of Pauley (and first place) by a thoroughly mediocre Bruins squad.

Then the game turned.

I don't know whether it was something said by Mike Montgomery during a timeout, or perhaps by one of the players, or if there was some sort of collective decision about what needed to be done.  But around this time, two things happened:

1) The Bears stopped settling for contested jump shots early in the shot clock, instead working better ball movement to open up holes in the Bruins' zone.
2) The Bears ratcheted up the defensive pressure, making UCLA really work for their points.  For the most part, the Bruins couldn't get it done.

Regarding the defense, Cal's achilles' heel all year has been slow rotations leaving shooters open on the perimeter.  Sometimes (Oregon) they don't hit those shots and it doesn't hurt you.  Sometimes (UCLA's key second-half run in their first meeting) they do.  But when the Bears made a concerted team effort to get out on shooters (in particular, I recall Jorge harassing Michael Roll wherever he went on the floor), they can make it very tough for opponents to score.  There's staying in front of your man and fighting through screens and boxing out and all sorts of various defensive schemes Monty might try to teach and employ, but in the end its all about effort for this team, and the Bears will go as far this year as they're willing to put in the defensive effort to get there.

Once you get an opponent to toss up a contested shot, by and large they're going to miss.  Now it's all about getting the rebound.  Here's a telling stat for you -- in the opening six minutes, the Bruins out-rebounded the Bears 10-1, 3-0 on the offensive end.  The final fourteen minutes of the first half?  Cal won that battle 12-2, 5-0 on the offensive glass.  That's 10 extra possessions that the Bears used to turn a 14-point deficit into a 7 point lead.

The first half was pretty much a reversal of the opening half at USC on Thursday night, with this time the Bears falling behind only to come roaring back with a decisive run.  While not as stifling as the 25-0 streak the Trojans reeled off, I do want to briefly go over the final two minutes of the first half, when Cal closed with 11 straight points to turn a four-point deficit into a seven-point lead that they would never relinquish.  It's the stuff opposing coaches have nightmares about:

Michael Roll missed Three Point Jumper.
Patrick Christopher Defensive Rebound.
Patrick Christopher made Three Point Jumper. Assisted by Jerome Randle.
Foul on Markhuri Sanders-Frison
Michael Roll Turnover.
Patrick Christopher Steal.
Theo Robertson made Three Point Jumper. Assisted by Jerome Randle.
Michael Roll missed Three Point Jumper.
Patrick Christopher Defensive Rebound.
Jerome Randle made Three Point Jumper. Assisted by Theo Robertson.
Nikola Dragovic missed Two Point Jumper.
Patrick Christopher Defensive Rebound.
Jamal Boykin made Two Point Layup. Assisted by Theo Robertson.

On offense, that's 4-4 shooting, with all four shots coming from four different players.  Moreover, all four shots were assisted by either Randle or Theo, demonstrating the kind of ball movement necessary to get good, open looks at the basket.  On the defensive end, that's three rebounds and a steal for Patrick Christopher, three jump shots forced by the Bears -- nothing inside.  Whether you're looking at play-by-play data or game film, it's hard to tell exactly how much of this is due to skill, how much due to effort, and how much due to luck, but basketball is a game of averages, and the Bears have enough skill that, when they choose to put forth the effort, they'll make their own luck.

The second half was less interesting, analytically, but it was nice to see that Cal's extra effort continued into the second half (mostly).  Once again, the Bears got complacent with a big lead, letting the Bruins go on an 11-2 run to close a 12-point lead to within three, but this time Cal was able to stop the bleeding, turning the effort back on to build the lead back to seven, then twelve, then seventeen.  UCLA never really threatened again, and Cal managed to finish comfortably, only the third time they've been able to do so in Pac-10 play.

One cause for concern is that, given that the Bears' major weakness (besides a lack of size inside, which doesn't hurt them in the Pac-10) is a lack of hustle, it would be nice if we could get more from the bench.  Montgomery's rotation only went seven-deep on Saturday, with Max, Seeley, Knezevic and Brandon Smith all left cheerleading on the sidelines.  While some of that was surely matchup-related (Max in particular), it sure would be nice if we could get some more bench minutes.  On the flip side, however, it was very nice to see extended, effective minutes from Jorge (23) and Markhuri (25), given their respective injury issues.  Getting those two back and healthy can only bring good things vs. Washington next Thursday.

So, now the Bears sit alone in first place at 7-4, but five teams (UCLA, USC, Arizona, Arizona State and Washington) are all nipping at their heels at 6-5.  With the parity (mediocrity?) present in this league, I firmly believe that 12-6 will be good enough to win it.  After all, they do have to still play each other, too, and the bottom four in this league are all good enough to pick off teams that don't bring their 'A' game.

Looking ahead, the schedule is pretty favorable, with four of seven (including all the toughest teams left) at home.  Next week, they host the Washington schools, before heading to Oregon, hosting the Arizona schools the following week, and closing out the season at Stanford.  Given their 1-game lead, 6-1 over that schedule would guarantee them a share of the conference title, and most likely be enough for an outright victory.  5-2 is probably enough for at least a share of the crown, and given the schedule, is a totally realistic outcome.  The Bears should be favored in all seven games, however, and I do believe that if they display the sort of effort and desire we've seen mostly in just flashes this season, they can actually win all seven.

-----

I do want to briefly mention our women's basketball team too (because I finally managed to catch a game on TV), though given the ugliness on display at Haas on Saturday, probably the less said, the better.  Still, here's a quick summary from NorcalNick:

Cal went on an 8-0 run to open the game.

Then UCLA came back with a 14-0 run of their own.

And then it was halftime.

Yes, 14-8 was your halftime score.  And yes, 22 combined first-half points tied an NCAA record in the shot-clock era.  And no, this wasn't some sort of throwback promotional game where they turned off the shot clock, because I saw the Bears commit at least one shot-clock violation, possibly more.  The second half featured more scoring (the Bears broke 30!), but not more winning, as Cal fell 44-32.

It wasn't merely a case of bad shooting, as both teams played pretty well defensively, but UCLA's defense was tougher, and that was the real difference in this game.  Offensively, the Bears looked completely lost, and outside of a couple of threes from Rachelle Federico, Cal just wasn't doing much of anything.  Not only did they not have answers for the Bruins' defensive pressure, they looked like they didn't even know what questions to ask.

Still, this is a young team, and they kept battling out there, and while this was one of the tough ones you know you're going to have, I still see plenty of hope for the future.  Though perhaps not the immediate future.

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