Last year, California Golden Bears men's basketball was a peculiar animal to watch in action. Most of our games were blowouts, with only 11 of their 35 games decided by single digits. The rest were well in hand early on and Cal cruised to a majority of their victories in conference play.
This year? We're already on eleven games that were decided in the final minutes, including eight of the last ten conference games. We've had a two point loss, four point win, seven point win (but in overtime!), two point loss, two point win, eight point win, four point win, and now, to top it all off, a two point triple overtime loss. They're the Cardiac Bears, that's for sure.
The good thing? Cal went 5-6 in 2009-2010 contests that went down to the wire. Fair, but hardly the sign of a team that could take care of its business late. Good as they were with their talent, they were frontrunners and seemed to rely heavily on their efficient shooting to blow opponents out of the water.
But this season, the Bears are 7-4. Talk about variance all you want, but the ability to execute down the stretch is a good sign for our team's future chances in close games. It's the sign of a team that's willing to be coached and execute their gameplan late, and Mike Montgomery deserves plenty of credit for it.
If you go back game-by-game, you'll see similar trends in the final five minutes (considered "clutch time" by basketball statisticians):
- Cal 57, Temple 50: Cal up 46-45, allows only five points in the final five minutes. Bears struggle to hit anything from the field, but gets to the line and piles up nine free throws.
- Cal 76, Iowa State 73: Cal up 63-61, allow two points for over three and a half minutes before giving up a few threes in the final few minutes. Cal struggles to hit anything from the field again, but hits another nine free throws.
- Southern Miss 80, Cal 78: Cal up 71-66. Easily the worst clutch performance by the Golden Bears, as they give up basket after basket down the stretch with Markhuri Sanders-Frison and Harper Kamp fouling out down the stretch.
- Arizona 73, Cal 71: Cal up 62-60, Arizona turns the tables and hits eight free throws down the stretch while Cal has seven of their own. Pretty much a toss-up, with Derrick Williams being dominant enough to overcome Cal's bigs. Sanders-Frison and Kamp foul out again.
- Cal 65, Arizona St. 61: Cal up 58-49, withstands two Sun Devil three pointers and two buckets in the paint by hitting five free throws.
- Cal 88, Wazzu 81 (overtime): With Cal-Wazzu tied at 68, the Cougars are held to 13 points over the next ten minutes of the game. Free throws again aid the Bears, as 12 of Cal's 20 points come from the charity stripe.
- UCLA 86, Cal 84: With Cal trailing 70-57 with five minutes remaining, the Bears score an unbelievable 27 points down the stretch to tie the game up. Even though Cal came up short, it was arguably their most impressive performance in clutch situations, as only eight of their points came from the line. The Bears hit eight of their last nine shots and held the Bruins to only seven points from the field, with the majority of UCLA's remaining points coming off of intentional fouls by Cal to stop the clock.
- Cal 68, USC 66: With the game tied at 54, Cal scores 14 points in the final five minutes and gets a crucial four-point possession off an intentional foul of Kamp. Cal only gets six free throws thanks to four critical misses with under 35 seconds left, keeping the Trojans in it.
- Cal 85, Oregon 77: With Cal up 68-65, the Bears put some distance between themselves and the Ducks with a Jorge Gutierrez three, a layup each for Kamp, Sanders-Frison and Allen Crabbe, and eight free throw makes. 17 points in five minutes? Ultra-efficient.
- Cal 66, Arizona St. 62: With ASU up 60-56 in a rather ugly offensive game, Cal holds the Devils to two points for the remainder of the game. Offensively, the Bears get four free throws courtesy of Crabbe and Gutierrez, and the dagger triples from Brandon Smith and Crabbe to give them the lead for good and put them ahead by four with seconds remaining respectively.
- Arizona 107, Cal 105 (triple overtime): Game tied at 87 with five minutes left, Cal and Arizona grind out 18 and 20 points respectively over the next twenty minutes, although it sure FELT like a lot more. This is one of those cases where the points produced per minute doesn't tell the story; the possessions were longer and both teams still hit the majority of their field goals. It was a free-flowing game that eventually had teams dragging by the end, but for most part the offensive effort and execution was superb on both sides. Some of this was assisted by five players fouling out, but for the most part it was just one of the many ingredients of a Pac-10 basketball classic.
So you can see a few distinctive patterns emerging.
- Cal is becoming a better offensive team. Generally teams tend to drop off in their production in clutch time, as possessions slow down, defenses dig in and force tougher shots, and players make more crucial decisions under pressure. This hasn't swayed the Bears, as their execution has been stellar down the stretch. Kudos to Monty.
- This was the case for Cal earlier this season, where their only haven late in a close game was at the free throw line. For the first few games after Gary Franklin transferred, Cal struggled to produce points that didn't involve refs blowing their whistles. But as Crabbe began to feel his way into the offense and feel comfortable taking over late, the Bears thrived. Cal seems to have three reliable offensive threats in Gutierrez, Kamp and Crabbe down the stretch, which will make them a potent force to deal with if they're ever in a close game the rest of the way.
- On the flip side, the defensive identity our team seemed to be built on early on has eroded through conference play. Due to constant foul trouble on Sanders-Frison and Kamp, the interior begins to soften up late in games with inexperienced bigs like the gangly Richard Solomon and the athletic Bak Bak manning the inside. We're forced to rely on smaller or younger lineups that aren't quite as tough to deal with inside. That forces a lot more help defense than necessary, and the Bears suffer from poor closeouts on three point shooters and opposing teams getting themselves back in the game.
- Notice that one of the two games in conference play where BOTH Kamp and Sanders-Frison are on the floor in crunchtime (against the Sun Devils) we actually play great defense. The other game was against Oregon, which I believe was actually the NCAA-sanctioned All-Star Free Throw Contest, so I'm not sure how much that one counts.
- All these close games means less run for our second unit and more and more minutes for a first unit that must thirst for breaks. Take a look at the minutes played for our starters this season.
Currently, young Crabbe (without any reliable backups that Monty trusts) has played the most minutes of anyone on the team. Smith, Kamp, and Gutierrez have never played more, and have seen big leaps from last season to this season in the amount of time they see the court. Although you'd love to believe Cal can keep this type of inspiring play going the rest of the season, you can kind of feel the body clocks ticking on these guys, and a burnout impending just like the 2008-09 season, when that team hit their wall mid-February and slid through the rest of the season. It's a lot to ask to expect this team to keep this level of playing over their heads going.
I would never be happier to be wrong. After all, as we showed above, these Bears have proven to handle adversity pretty well.