Cal basketball in the NIT: Was upsetting Arizona a blessing and a curse?

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Was Cal upsetting Arizona the event that turned the season south?

Shorter post: This post is just an excuse for me to watch this video again.


Longer post

When trying to trace back why exactly Cal fell apart the final few weeks, I've had an easy time identifying the bad symptoms.

  • The shooters on our team stopped shooting.
  • The bigs on our team couldn't post with regularity.
  • The defensive scheme was too difficult for our players to handle, leading to mismatches and wide open threes.
  • We morphed into one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country
  • The team deferred to Justin Cobbs running isolation plays almost everytime the team fell into a hole (which was about every Pac-12 game).
  • The team fell behind every game and played catch up on way too many occasions.

So the how is pretty easy. The why, when and where took some time to diagnose. I eventually turned back to the last moment we really felt good about Cal basketball.

Beating Arizona was the moment we were on top of the college basketball world. We stuck to a strict gameplan. Everyone filled into designated roles and did a little here and there. No one played too out of control or too restrained. We did just enough to hang in there and then nailed the clutch shot at the end. There was that universal desire to take down number one, and it fueled us to what should have been the biggest win of the Mike Montgomery era.

And as far as I know, that was the season for the Bears.

Now we had been playing inconsistently in the weeks before and the cracks were showing in certain places, but considering the injuries we had accumulated in non-conference play it didn't seem like that big an issue (and 6-3 sounded like a wonderful place to be going into the second half of conference play). Once we integrated our injured players back into the lineup and they started getting acclimated, everything would fall into place.

It never did. Jabari Bird never stopped struggling. Ricky Kreklow provided added defensive intensity and some occasional threes but remained limited in too many other facets. Jordan Mathews had an occasional great shooting night but was all over the place in other spots. Tyrone Wallace made bad plays, good plays, more bad plays, then some more bad plays. David Kravish grinds, but he just really never meshed well with the units he got on the floor. Richard Solomon would play monstrous at times (sparingly few through our most brutal defeats) and passive at others. And Justin Cobbs wore down having to carry the team every night.

Probably most disturbing was that the team played with a befuddling lack of urgency. I've discussed many of the issues that this Bears team have struggled with since the beginning of the season, but I wonder if they were exacerbated by one of the biggest basketball wins in Haas Pavilion history. It was almost as if Cal had decided they were already in the tournament by beating the number one team in the country, and were just waiting for March to roll around to get that win. For the Bears, that was their shining moment.

Once Cal beat Arizona, the Bears seemed to rest on their laurels. They didn't adapt or adjust in-game (the reason Monty teams have been so deadly effective in the past few years). They insisted on coming out and playing the same way and hoping that this would be good enough to win. Players didn't improve during the season; they stagnated or regressed in their development. The team's offensive and defensive efficiency kept on declining. The team basketball that defined Monty's teams early on morphed into a disjointed and ugly mess of semi-transition offense interspersed with long periods of motionless, isolation play.

And despite all of that, no change from our team. All of us were left clinging to that one wonderful night, thinking that win meant that we just come out there and snatch victory.

Lose to our rivals in a game that could put them on the bubble? "Hey at least we have that Arizona win."
Lost to UCLA by 20? "But we beat Arizona, we have the capability to beat anyone."
Fall to Utah and Colorado in practical play-in games: "Arizona is still a number one seed right? So there's a chance!"

Worst of all, the leadership and accountability when things went bad were not there. Neither Cobbs nor Solomon proved to be vocal leaders in senior roles. They didn't seem able to communicate with the younger players the way former veterans like Brandon Smith and Robert Thurman and Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp and Jerome Randle and Jamal Boykin were able to do. Those players challenged everyone else to be be better by their play and/or their work ethic, and no one dared play below their level in fear of letting them down. This year, everyone seemed a little too satisfied come February, and hungrier teams pounced on them.

It's not an unusual phenomena for a team to start out hot, land that signature win, then fade fast (although it's a bit unusual for a Monty team). All throughout this past month I thought back on that 2007 Cal football team and thought about how promising they were, and how they landed that signature national win, and everything was torn asunder just like that. We ignored the flaws of that team too (and still kind of do) because of how strong we started. But I always figured that team could do a lot better than 7-6, just like this team could've performed much better than 10-8 in the Pac-12 and NIT #2 seed.

Yeah, Cal beat Arizona, plus Furd and Oregon without all hands on deck, but we were still the team that lost to UC Santa Barbara and USC (and struggled the second time too), nearly lost to Washington State, and was blown out at home in pretty critical games on several occasions. Our best was good enough to beat anyone's best, but it didn't come out any near as often as our worse. That Arizona win seemed to deflate the resiliency and toughness that Monty teams are known for, and the deficiencies of this team (impatience, mental errors, stubbornness, slow starts) shone through for the rest of the season.

There will be a lot of soul searching going on for the Bears this postseason and offseason. They have to figure out if they're the type of team that is okay with one big moment, or a team that wants to build a program that wants nights like that to be every night, right through March.

Have a question for us to answer, a tip you want to submit, or anything else you want to discuss about Cal or anything else? Email us at goldenblogs@gmail.com and we'll try and get back to you. GO BEARS!

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