Every year, 65 teams enter the NCAA tournament. 64 go home disappointed; for them, it's only a matter of when.
For the Cal Bears, the dream finally died last evening around 7:30PM EST, as the Duke Blue Devils finished running away from the Bears and into the Sweet 16. It was not a heartbreaking loss; Cal was a heavy underdog in any case, and Duke slowly pressed their inside advantage over the Bears all night. It was definitely disappointing, though -- you can talk about how the Bears got beat by a better team, and how they had a successful season in any case, including a conference championship, but in the immediate aftermath of a tough loss to end the season, it's small consolation. Ask me again next week.
At the beginning of the season, while almost all the pundits looked at Cal's roster and declared them a Top 20 team, they also declared their lack of size to be their biggest weakness, the fatal flaw that might ultimately do them in. While the Bears got a taste of that in a loss at Kansas, this lack of size has been mostly understated all season, simply because no other team in the Pac-10 was set up to exploit it. Against Duke, however, the Blue Devils pressed their advantages in the paint and off the bench, and Cal, trailing for most of the game, simply could not shoot themselves back into it.While you can look back at this game with disappointment, perhaps, you can't look back at it with regret; Duke is a better, deeper team, with matchup advantages they exploited, and while the Bears create their own matchup problems, they would have needed plenty of things to go their way to come away victorious. As Coach Montgomery said postgame:
"If we played Duke 10 times, I think they would win more than us," California coach Mike Montgomery said. "We were a little overmatched, and there's not much we could do about it."
(As a side note, one thing I love about having Montgomery as a coach is how he's a straight-shooter with the press. He may not tell you everything you want to know, but he's give honest and sometimes insightful analysis, something that's a breath of fresh air in a world full of say-nothing-interesting coach-speak.)
I think Monty is right on the money here. In his hypothetical 10-game series, I think Cal wins just 2, maybe 3 of those games. Not that they couldn't do it, but a lot of things would have to go right for the Bears, things such as:
- Shooting the ball well (Cal shot under 40% for the game)
- Limiting turnovers (Ten giveaways isn't too bad, but when Duke only gives you five of them back...)
- Rebound the basketball (Duke outrebounded them 34-29)
- Get a few calls from the refs (I'm not going to go into it, but a couple of 50/50 calls now and then really could have helped)
Actually, when you look at the box score, you don't see any particular point of domination for Duke. Instead, what you see is across-the-board advantages.
Points - Duke 68, Cal 53
Shot Attempts - Duke 57, Cal 48
Shots Made - Duke 27, Cal 19
Offensive Rebounds - Duke 11, Cal 8
Defensive Rebounds - Duke 23, Cal 21
Assists - Duke 11, Cal 6
Steals - Duke 4, Cal 3
Blocks - Duke 5, Cal 1
Turnovers - Duke 5, Cal 10
Fouls - Duke 15, Cal 18
About the only areas where Cal came out ahead was slightly better free throw shooting (12 of 16 for Cal, just 11 of 17 for Duke) and fewer missed three pointers (3 of 12 made for Cal, an atrocious 3 of 17 for Duke), and that's not enough. Across the board Duke was just better -- they rebounded better, they controlled the ball better, they contested shots better, they found the open man inside better. Brian Zoubek in particular had a huge game, making all 6 of his shots (3 after offensive rebounds, 2 more on easy buckets from nice outside passes) to go with 13 total rebounds. The Bears tried several different things to slow down Duke's inside game, but Max Zhang was ineffective and Markhuri Sanders-Frison, despite a nice overall effort, kept picking up fouls. Simply put, for the majority of this game, the Bears were outplayed. After the game, Theo Robertson had this to say:
"They got us back on our heels early. There really was no turning point, it was a steady diet," Robertson said. "They executed so well and did a great job communicating."
And that's pretty much the long and the short of it. Can you pinpoint a play where the Bears lost the game? Not really. However, I suppose I can point to the last point at which I had real hope the Bears might win this one, and how quickly it died.
With just over 13 minutes to go in the game, Jamal Boykin grabbed an offensive rebound (his second of the possession) and put it back to cut the Duke lead to 7. It took a lot of effort, but the Bears had cut the Blue Devil halftime lead nearly in half with plenty of time left. In the next two minutes, it would be completely undone and more.
First, the Bears got Nolan Smith to brick a jump shot, only to have Zoubek grab the rebound and put it back it. Duke by 9. Randle tried to answer at the other end, but his layup as the shot clock wound down was off, and Zoubek cleared. It was Zoubek again at the other end, getting behind the defense, fed by Lance Thomas. Duke by 11. On the next Bears' possession, Nolan Smith picked up a foul for Duke, but Jorge Gutierrez' inbound attempt was stolen by Jon Scheyer and not only did Nolan Smith take it strong to the hoop at the other end, but Patrick Christopher picked up a stupid foul trying to defend the break, making enough contact to draw a guaranteed whistle, but not nearly enough to impede the shot. Duke by 13. And when Nolan misses the and-1 free throw, Zoubek is there once again for the offensive board, and Singler finishes. Duke by 15, and the Bears would never threaten again; the rest of the game was mostly an exercise in determining the final score.
Really, though, there's no need to further dwell on this loss. Duke is a very, very good team, and with Kansas out of the tournament, they have to be considered on the short list of teams who could win it all. Nothing about Sunday's game told us anything we didn't already know about our Bears -- it merely served to magnify the weaknesses inherent in the roster. Disappointing, sure, but not surprising or shameful in the least. Just because the Bears didn't really come close to pulling off what could only have been considered a pretty big upset doesn't diminish their impressive accomplishments for this season: 24 wins, a sweep of rival Stanford, and a watershed Pac-10 title (all three of these are the Bears' first in many, many years), not to mention a host of memories from a fantastic senior class, one that could fill a number of highlight films (should some industrious Cal fan decide to put them together).
So, what's next for our Bears? Well, for the seniors, it's time to finish up some classes, get that diploma and see if they can find a shot at the next level. None of the seniors are guaranteed to make an NBA roster, but any of them might find themselves a place somewhere, especially overseas. We'll definitely be remembering each of the seniors over the next couple weeks, and examining their professional prospects, should they choose to pursue them.
And as for the rest of the team? Well, 2010-11 looks to be, if not a full-blown rebuilding year, then at least a year of great transition. The Bears lose 80% of their starters, 77% of their scoring and 52% of their rebounding (64% if Amoke's suspension becomes more than temporary). Cal does hope to get Harper Kamp back from injury, Bak Bak back from academic probation, Omondi Amoke back from whatever he was suspended for, and will bring in a highly-touted recruiting class, led by the Gatorade California Player of the Year, Allen Crabbe. They also get an intriguing walk-on transfer in 6' 10" Robert Thurman, meaning the Bears' weakness this year (lack of size) could turn into a strength next season. In any case, it should be an interesting year, and if Monty can get this team back to the NCAA tournament for a third straight season, it might be his best coaching job yet.