Lots of this, followed by lots of swish. - USA TODAY Sports
Allen Crabbe's 23 points and 16 team steals propel Cal to the road win.
I don't mean to minimize Cal's performance in winning over the Utes - Cal did plenty of things right. The 5 point margin over victory really hides the reality that Cal seemed poised to blow the game open for most of the 2nd half, and only a flurry of missed free throws made the final score look superficially close.
But the Utes turned the ball over 17 times, and a stunning 15 of those turnovers came in the first half. That's nearly as many turnovers as attempted shots (18). And although Cal's defense was solid, I wouldn't call it a swarming, pressure defense. Monty's scheme just isn't designed to force a flurry of turnovers. In his time at Cal, he's never had a team ranked higher than 198th in the nation in defensive turnover percentage.
And while Utah hasn't been great with ball security, they're not 2012 Arizona State or anything. But for whatever reason, they were just incapable of making decent passes for twenty minutes. Ill-advised entry passes, over-confidence outlets in transition, lazy passes around the perimeter - they had it all, and Cal used their length defensively to take advantage. Every single cal player that entered the game recorded at least one steal - hell, even Robert Thurman had three!
It's a good thing Utah was so generous, because it allowed Cal to recover from a very slow offensive start to the game. With 11:50 left in the half, the Bears were trailing 11-6 and hadn't done much. But Allen Crabbe found his shooting stroke, and one 18-4 run later Cal was up 11. And that was more or less the lead for the rest of the game. It was stretched out to 15 when Crabbe hit back-to-back 3s in the middle of the second half, and it would dwindle all the way down to 3 when the Bears missed their free throws, but Utah never possessed the ball with a chance to tie the game and the final result was never much in doubt.
So what does this win tell us? It tells us that Cal is a better team than Utah, which means much more than it meant last year. Utah is still a bad team by the standards of the Pac-12 this season, but they have some decent wins and they're tough to beat in Salt Lake City. But they didn't come out with a great performance today, and Cal was plenty good enough to capitalize.
Allen Crabbe was, as always, the star offensively, but he got a solid all-around performance from his supporting cast, with every Bear sinking at least one field goal. Had Cal shot a little better, this game could have become a blowout. Cal was able to get an open look from three on pretty much every possession, but everybody not named Allen Crabbe shot just 2-12 from behind the arc. Luckily that iffy perimeter defense allowed Crabbe open looks just as much as everybody else - he nailed 4 of 6.
Also, props to Tyrone Wallace for his 8 assists. We're seeing him play more and more at the point with Justin Cobbs off the ball, and it paid dividends today as the duo combined for 12 assists to just 2 turnovers. Playing off the ball more hasn't broken Cobbs out of his low scoring slump, but at least Cal was able to create a little more offense down low.
Ultimately, this win doesn't tell us much. So far, Cal has been a thoroughly mediocre Pac-12 team. Lose to UCLA, beat USC. Lose to Washington, beat Wazzu. Beat Utah . . . and Colorado is up next. If Cal wants to turn a corner, they'll start earning sweeps rather than splits. But road wins don't come much tougher than at Colorado, and despite their struggles you'd have to give the Buffs the benefit of the doubt right now.
So: Kudos, Bears, for taking care of business. But the tougher test comes Sunday. Take some big gulps of air while you can.