After 27 games you think you get to know a team. You see how the win (or lose) games, and recognize their strengths and weaknesses, the strategies they employ to maximize their chances. And for the Bears it’s been a pretty simple formula. Rebounding, defense, rebounding, interior scoring, rebounding. Rinse and repeat.
And then the Bears went on the road to play Oregon and Oregon State and over two games they went 15-28 from three and made 39 free throws. If I were asked what Cal’s biggest weaknesses are, I would probably have said either long range shooting or free throw shooting – and yet the Bears won in large part because they succeeded in a new way.
Granted, Cal made 39 free throws in part because they shot 57 total. Still, Cal entered the weekend shooting 53.4% from the line but shot 68.4% against the Ducks and Beavers. Cal beat Oregon State by seven. If the Bears had shot their usual free throw percentage they would have made six or seven fewer attempts. If they had shot below their usual percentage, they might have lost.
The question is if Cal’s sudden shooting prowess is the start of a trend or just random chance. Perhaps we shouldn’t be completely surprised by Cal’s three point shooting binge up north. We know that many teams will attempt to crowd the paint as much as possible to stop Cal’s post players from dominating inside. And we also know that Cal has punished a few other teams for completely disrespecting their outside shooting (Stanford and St. Mary’s come to mind). And we especially know that Oregon’s defense generally is not very good, and that they are prone to leaving shooters wide open.
The simple reality is that 3 point shooting is always a high variable skill – some games they’ll go in, other games they won’t. In the long run it would be much more valuable if Cal’s improved free throw shooting stuck around. I’m on record as saying that, at least this year, the Bears are what they are from the line. But even modest improvement from 53% to 65% could make a difference in close games. Of course, perhaps the best lesson from the weekend is that if Cal is going to be shooting free throws, hope that it’s Layshia stepping up to the line.
Other scattered Oregon/Oregon State thoughts:
-Layshia Clarendon: When her jump shot is falling she's one of the most dangerous players in the conference.
-Afure Jemerigbe, 4-4 from three?! Her mid-season ankle injury was probably more damaging to the team than many may have anticipated, in part because she was playing some solid basketball towards the end of the non-conference season. It’s been a slow road back into the rotation, but her ability to shoot and play defense I think is a tad underrated. At the very least she adds important depth to the guard/wing rotation.
-I don’t know what in the world happened in Corvallis, but Cal attempted 27 more free throws than the Beavers. Did Scott Rueck hope that playing Hack-A-Bear against a team just about 50% from the line would lead to an upset? Did Cal just get the benefit of the whistles from notoriously random Pac-12 refs? Admittedly, 14 of Cal’s 33 free throws came in one of the craziest final two minutes you’ll ever read a play-by-play of (OSU outscored Cal 16-10 in that span. 26 combined points in two minutes! Remember when UCLA led Cal 14-8 at halftime two years ago?), so I’ll credit Coach G and the Bears for attacking inside and drawing contact.
-While Cal did a great job getting open and then hitting their own 3 pointers, they had some trouble defending them. The Ducks and Beavers combined to shoot 21-57 from three. As KenPom will tell you, the best way to defend three pointers is to prevent your opponent from shooting them in the first place. I don’t know what Cal’s defensive emphasis was last weekend, but it’s some food for thought over the rest of the season.
Weekly Tourney Thoughts
Charlie Creme’s latest bracketology still has Cal as an 8 seed, which is mildly alarming. It’s alarming because the 8-9 round is easily the worst draw possible, but only mildly because there's plenty of time and opportunties for Cal to move up. That’s always the case for men’s and women’s basketball, but especially this year. If Cal gets an 8 or 9 seed it’s basically a sure thing that Baylor, UConn or Notre Dame will be lurking in the 2nd round. Yes, that’s three teams that have combined to lose two games this season to teams other than themselves.
In my opinion there’s a relatively sizeable gap in quality between Baylor, UConn and Notre Dame and the likely 2 seeds in Tennessee, Maryland, Duke and Miami. Cal certainly wouldn’t be a favorite against teams like that, but I’d give the Bears a puncher’s chance – and I don’t think any of those teams would look forward to facing this Cal team.
So what does Cal need to do to rise above the 8-9 game? Well, they can’t lose to RPI 100+ teams at home like Colorado and Utah. They can’t lose their first round Pac-12 tournament game against a team like Washington or Washington State, or their 2nd round game against a team like Oregon St. or . . . gulp . . . USC.
In short, Cal has two options: win every game they are supposed to win (not unreasonable, but tough), or beat Stanford. Beating the RPI #3 Cardinal would probably be enough to bump Cal up a full seed line from wherever they would have ended up without that win.
Other things that would help: UCLA (48), Arizona St. (54) and Virginia (50) playing well over the final stretch of the season and staying in or rising into the RPI top 50. Yes, the RPI is dumb, but it’s the way the system works so we may as well hope for the best.
Back when Cal swept Colorado and Utah on the road, it seemed like a big step for the young Bears. Since then both the Buffs and Utes have generally struggled in Pac-12 play (though Utah has scored a couple of narrow upsets) to the point that anything less than a home sweep would be a disappointment. Doing so would officially clinch 2nd place in the Pac-12 and also mean that the Bears won every single game against conference teams outside of California . . . which isn’t necessarily meaningful, but kinda cool.
At Saturday game against Colorado there will also be a fundraiser for the PlayForKay Cancer Foundation, and pink shirts created by the players will be auctioned off. As somebody related to a breast cancer survivor but who also has aesthetic and philosophical issues with pink jerseys (too close to Stanford red!), I applaud the Bears for supporting charity in this particular fashion. So come on out, support cancer research, and watch some basketball!