Just two short weeks ago Cal sat at 3-4 in Pac-12 play and were losing by 11 at home to Oregon State late in the first half. They were staring at a 3-5 conference record with their next four games against the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th place teams in the conference.
Things were bleak.
But Cal came back to beat the Beavers, took it to Oregon, almost came back to beat ASU, raced past Arizona in the 2nd half, then played their best half of the season to beat UCLA. Where in the hell has this run come from?
To a certain extent, Cal's recent play has justified the frustration that many felt when the Bears went 6-8 in December and January. We all knew that this team had talent and a good coach - why couldn't they put it together? What was holding them back? Early in the season people were saying that the Bears had one of the best guard duos in the country. Cal was starting two tall, lengthy post players with the ability to lock down the defensive glass. Why wasn't this team winning?
I don't know if I can answer those questions. We've talked all season about nebulous concepts like confidence and cohesion, effort and intensity. Regardless, something was missing that has since been found, because we're seeing a completely different Cal team.
Points/game: 15.9 (45% shooting)
Last 5 games
Points/game: 20.6 (56% shooting)
Last 4 wins
Points/game: 23.5 (58% shooting)
Cal's post duo had a real down game against ASU, and Cal lost. Otherwise, they've been sterling on both ends and the Bears have been much better for it. Both have been more active on the glass, both have been much stronger in the paint, and both have shown a surprising array of post moves. The Bears finally have a consistent threats to score inside.
And nobody has benefited more from that shift than Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs who have both looked renewed as offensive players after slogging through the early Pac-12 schedule amidst constant bumps and grabs from overzealous defenders who focused all of their attention on the perimeter duo. Against the Bruins Crabbe had an unbelievable amount of space to work with. Granted, that might say more about UCLA's defense than the attention teams need to give to Solomon and Kravish, but that didn't make it any less fun to watch.
Every bit of the improvements we've seen over the last few weeks culminated in Cal's first half offensive explosion. If I'm going my math correctly, both teams had 34 offensive possessions. Cal scored 1.38 points per possession and UCLA scored .65. I'm not going to go through the entire season, but I think there's a pretty decent chance that those 20 minutes represented the best offensive and defensive half the Bears have played all season.
It certainly helped that Shabazz Muhammad picked up two fouls in about three minutes. He didn't actually spend much time on the bench, but those fouls seemed to take him out of his game and he was never a factor. Meanwhile, Cal was doing whatever they wanted to on offense. Allen Crabbe was getting uncontested floaters in the lane, Solomon and Kravish were getting easy lay-ins on put backs and penetration passes from guards . . . it all brought a tear to my jaded eyes.
Cal's largest lead was 28, with 50 seconds left in the first half. The game was over.
Sure, UCLA hit a bunch of 3s in the second half (7 of 10, to be specific). Sure, there's no way Cal was going to keep scoring at that pace, even if UCLA never picked up their defensive intensity. It didn't really matter. Cal would have had to try to let UCLA win after that first half. It was 20 minutes of garbage time filled with Thurmanations and Solo dunks and lots of fun because we had a 28 point first half lead on UCLA. Cal had a 28 point first half lead against UCLA. That's a sentence worth remembering for a long time.
CHART OF VICTORY
It turns out that when you win every phase of the game, you tend to win, and by a lot. Science!