Exactly how good can the Bears be?
Over the last few weeks, two very interesting articles have been written about Lindsay Gottlieb's Bears. The articles have somewhat opposing viewpoints, yet both raise valid points. And they both (obliquely) address this question:
Exactly how good is this team, and how far can they go?
Nate Parham at Swish Appeal watched Cal beat Stanford while they weren't even playing their best basketball, which makes you wonder:
So here's a question: have we really even seen a game when everything is clicking? When Boyd is an efficient distributor and productive, if not exactly efficient, scorer, Clarendon is scoring 20+, the defense is locked in, and they dominate the boards all at once? The possibility of that coming together at once is frightening and the reality is that they haven't needed it to this point because one phase of the game has always helped them win.
Meanwhile, Vincent Tzeng with the Daily Cal argues that Cal's failures in losses to Duke and Stanford (and struggles against USC) reveal a fatal flaw:
Elite status belongs to those who can top other elite teams. It belongs to teams that can play as a cohesive unit, provide shutdown defense and make all the shots when they count.
The only problem is Cal can't shoot. At least not when it counts.
The Bears' two losses are indicative of such.
Both of these pieces were written prior to Cal's home stand sweep of Colorado and Utah. But nothing that happened over the past weekend really changed the idea much. Cal shot just a hair under 40% combined against Utah and Colorado, and in Pac-12 games the Bears are, amazingly, 10th in eFG%. That they are tied for 1st place in the standings is somewhat unbelievable. Admittedly, that says something about the absurdly stacked schedule Cal has faced. It also says something about how good Cal has been at playing defense, drawing fouls, grabbing rebounds, and avoiding turnovers.
This largely becomes an argument of perspective. Are you a glass-half-full fan? Do you see all of the great things that Cal has done, and imagine what they could do if they started hitting shots at a higher rate? Are you a glass-half-empty fan? Do you see a team that will never shoot well, which means losses are inevitable on nights when rebounding isn't dominant or the defense isn't as crisp?
I think it's a safe assumption that Cal will never become a great shooting team this year. Maybe their free throw shooting will improve a few percentage points towards the high 60s. Maybe Mikayla Lyles gets more minutes or Afure Jemerigbe gets more consistent with her three point shot. But is Cal's shooting so questionable that it will cost them the Pac-12 title, or lead to a premature exit in the NCAA tournament?
That's a tougher question to answer. But I think Cal's wins over Stanford and USC and Colorado hint at the answer: Cal has completed the toughest portion of their schedule despite this weakness, and so far it has been an unqualified success. The LA road trip looms as the only conference games left that should be as challenging as the games the Bears have already won.
If the Bears drop a game in L.A. (or anywhere, really) and subsequently lose the Pac-12 title to Stanford, it will be easy to look at shooting as the reason, but based on Cal's total performance, it's hard to conclude that Cal is anything but a heavy favorite in nearly every game remaining in the regular season. And if Cal finishes 16-2 in conference, one game behind Stanford, would that make this season a failure? That seems unduly harsh. Still, Tzeng's point, I think, goes beyond winning at least a share of the Pac-12 title. What about being ‘elite?'
If the Bears want to be elite, they'll need more than just luck. Expecting a monster performance from one of the post players or guards isn't crazy.
Relying on these performances, however, is.
Cal won't face another elite team until either the Pac-12 tournament (if both Cal and Stanford face each other) or the NCAA tournament. Shooting cost the Bears a potential sweep of Stanford and a shot at upsetting Duke. The latest Bracketology from ESPN gives the Bears a 2 seed. Could Cal beat a potential 3 seed like Tennessee or Maryland on a cold shooting day? What if they faced a #1 seed like UConn or Baylor for a spot in the Final Four?
The simple reality is that the Bears would almost certainly need to shoot well to have a shot against teams like that. But as I've mentioned before, we've seen the Bears do just that. Kansas packed it in with a zone and the Bears excelled. UCLA switched to a zone and the Bears got plenty of points. That doesn't mean that Cal is destined to shoot well in the tournament, but struggling to shoot against USC doesn't preclude the possibility either.
A cold shooting night could very well cost Cal some wins. But then again, that's a reality that is true for every single team in the nation. Just ask Stanford how they felt when Cal won in Maples, or UConn after they lost to Notre Dame.
The good news is that Cal excels at rebounding and defense, and those skills are amongst the most consistent skills a basketball team can possess. Even great shooters have bad nights. But Gennifer Brandon is never going to forget how to rebound. Layshia Clarendon isn't going to forget how to fight through a high screen. Cal's weaknesses might stop them from beating the elite. But Cal's strengths will also give them a shot against everybody. And if Baylor or UConn come calling in March, all you want is a chance.