Vote For Layshia, Gen Is Awesome & Other WBB News

Eliza Pierre's defense is a critical piece of Cal's elite puzzle. - Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

A quick run through the latest Cal women's basketball news and notes, plus an in-depth look at how (and how much) Cal has improved defensively this year.

So many things to cover, so little time. Considering that Cal is in the midst of a stretch in which they don't play anybody with a Pac-12 record better than 3-8, there's been an awful lot of news breaking. Let's dive right in before we get into some stat wonk nerdery:

  • Layshia Clarendon is one of 10 finalists for the Lowe's Senior CLASS award! (CLASS, presumable, is an acronym for Clarendon, Layshia: A Superior Senior. Or something like that.) This means that you must vote vote vote for her. The hypothetical favorite is Skylar Diggins, what with her millions of twitter followers. But Layshia's hair is way cooler and she doesn't need twitter to be awesome. So go vote for her! In case you needed a reason:

There are three main extracurricular activities that Clarendon dedicates her limited free time to. The first is being a note taker for the Disabled Students Program. This service provides thorough lecture notes for students who are incapable, either physically or mentally, of taking notes for themselves. Despite taking a full course load, her commitment to basketball and working on her undergraduate thesis, Clarendon continues to provide notes for disabled students in her major.

The second is a program called Athletes in Action that brings student-athletes together for faith-based activities. Clarendon is an active member and leader in this organization. She attends and leads weekly meetings as well as participates in community service events such as serving the homeless, collecting goods for underprivileged families and fundraising for churches in lower socio economic communities.

Lastly, Clarendon is a committed member of the Gay Straight Alliance on campus and Athlete Ally nationally. These groups are focused on anti-bullying and the promotion of acceptance of the LGBT community. Clarendon has pledged to be an example of tolerance and fight for equality.

Analyzing the Cal Defense

Note: All stats are courtesy of WBBState.com and are accurate as of Thursday night.

Last week's discussion regarding Cal's shooting and how it might impact their chances over the rest of the season sparked a larger discussion, so rather than focusing on Cal's offense, let's talk about their defense.

Last year, Cal's defense was OK. Not great, not bad, OK. But that meant that defense was the one obvious area in which Cal could improve upon this year. With the Bears sitting at 17-2, ranked 6th in the country the obvious assumption is that Cal's defense has taken the necessary step forward to support the offense. But how much is that actually the case? Let's start with how many points Cal allows per possession:

D-PPP, 2012: 0.834, 107th in the country
D-PPP, 2013: 0.775, 41 in the country

The most basic measure of defense confirms that the Bears have improved. And although .059 points/possession might seem relatively miniscule, consider that over a 73 possession game (Cal's average) that accounts for about 4.3 less points for Cal's opponent. That's significant - in fact, it's the difference between losing 6 games by 5 points or less last year and winning 4 games by 5 points or less (plus an OT game) this year.

But at the same time, the perception has been that Cal's defense is significantly better than ‘merely' the 41st best defense in the country. What else has changed?

Strength of Schedule, 2012: 33rd
Strength of Schedule, 2013: 10th

Ah, there you go. Cal played a tough schedule last year, but not nearly as tough has Cal's schedule has been so far this year. There are undoubtedly a number of teams ahead of Cal in the defensive rankings who have played comparatively weak schedules and don't truly possess a defense as strong as Cal's. Additionally, Cal's defensive rankings will likely rise as they play the weaker portion of their schedule over the 2nd half of conference season. As a matter of fact, Cal's defense rose from 67th to 41st just since sweeping the Oregon schools.

But what has changed from last year in terms of the defensive component statistics? Let's dive in further by looking at the four factors

SHOOTING DEFENSE
eFG%, 2012: 38.4, 151st in the country
eFG%, 2013: 37.5, 125th in the country

TURNOVER DEFENSE
TOV%, 2012: 21.0, 250th in the country
TOV%, 2013: 24.0, 117th in the country

REBOUNDING DEFENSE*
Reb%, 2012: 59.4, 2nd in the country
Reb%, 2013: 59.8, 3rd in the country

FOUL DEFENSE
FTR, 2012: 18.1, 140th in the country
FTR, 2013: 16.7, 110th in the country

In terms of shooting, fouling and rebounding, Cal's defensive performance is close to statistically identical to 2012. (Prior to Cal's dominating road sweep of the Oregon schools, the stats were even closer). The main area in which Cal has improved is in forcing turnovers. That's obviously a direct consequence of running the full court press with greater frequency and success. But it's worth pointing out that Cal doesn't press against every opponent. They typically use it only against teams that Cal can ‘out-athlete.' The Bears didn't have any success pressing against Stanford, for example.

Again it must be pointed out that keeping component stats static against a tougher schedule is a form of improvement in and of itself. But let's break down that thought further. Where do Cal's opponents rank in terms of their offense, and how did Cal do against them?

Opponent

Opponent

O-PPP (Rank)

Opponent

O-PPP vs. Cal

Difference

Lehigh

.783 (285)

.647

-.136

St. Mary's

.929 (66)

.529

-.400

Cal Poly

.894 (108)

.866

-.028

Eastern Washington

.904 (98)

.795

-.109

Georgetown

.851 (174)

.759

-.092

At Old Dominion

.882 (124)

.624

-.258

At Duke

1.049 (5)

.992

-.057

At CSU Bakersfield

.865 (146)

.632

-.233

At Northwestern

.858 (155)

.870

+.012

Kansas

.924 (73)

1.135

+.211

George Washington

.797 (261)

.604

-.193

At Utah

.908 (95)

.767

-.141

At Colorado

.940 (56)

.723

-.217

Stanford

1.038 (8)

.960

-.078

At Stanford

1.038 (8)

.859

-.179

USC

.860 (153)

.901

+.041

UCLA

.924 (73)

.870

-.054

Utah

.908 (95)

.802

-.106

Colorado

.940 (56)

.944

+.004

Oregon State

.814 (244)

.542

-.272

Oregon

.763 (306)

.555

-.208


As you would expect from a good defensive team, the Bears have held their opponents below their expected level of offensive efficiency in nearly every game, and only Kansas was able to outperform their own usual level by a significant amount. The other three games in which Cal's defense didn't excel also happen to be three games in which Cal was closest to being upset by an inferior opponent.

Cal's two losses are also instructive. Duke and Stanford both performed below their usual averages. But an average performance from teams like that is still really good, and both the Blue Devils and the Cardinal were reasonably close to their norms. With Cal's offense understandably limited against elite opponents, it wasn't quite enough. The defensive performance at Maples is much more in line with what the Bears will need come March.

Perhaps most interesting is that Cal's best defensive performances have come when they need it most. When they couldn't make a shot against Colorado in Boulder, defense won them the game. When turnovers caused problems at Old Dominion, the Bears shut down the Monarchs during crunch time. When they had to bounce back to beat Stanford, the defense stepped up at Maples. Cal's defense may not be miles better than last year, but it has certainly had better timing, which might have something to do with my perception that Cal's defense has better than the numbers indicate.

My sense is that Cal's defense has been slowly but steadily improving as the season goes along, and certainly some of their more impressive performances have come during conference play. The fact that their conference efficiency numbers are more or less identical to their total season efficiency numbers despite having played five games against ranked opponents (and two games against Stanford, a top 10 offense) is an indication of that improvement.

There's still room for improvement. The Bears can tighten up their field goal defense. They can improve their ability to press elite teams. Various players can work to limit unnecessary fouls. But Cal's improvement on the defensive end has been the driving force in their step forward this year, and continued improvement bodes well for post-season chances.

*It's worth noting that WBBState doesn't differentiate between defensive rebounding rate and offensive rebounding rate. Luckily, Cal is such a good rebounding team that the important take away is that the Bears, in both 2012 and 2013, were amongst the elite in terms of preventing opponent offensive rebounds.

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