Amidst the sudden collapse of the season after an encouraging stretch during the middle of the conference season, a concerning trend has developed in the majority of Cal’s losses: bad starts.
I’ll give Cal a pass for falling behind 15-4 to Stanford because, you know, Stanford is really really good and they do that to most of the teams they play. But there are plenty more examples. In Pullman Washington St. jumped out to a 15-2 lead after five minutes. At home vs. UCLA the Bruins raced to a 9-2 lead after five minutes. Washington took a 21-4 lead after eight minutes in Berkeley. And last weekend Cal twice was badly outplayed in the opening minutes, falling behind 11-3 to UCLA and 17-4 to UCLA.
That’s six of Cal’s nine Pac-10 losses. Six times the Bears have had big deficits to surmount early. And not coincidentally, those six games all ended in double digit defeats. Of course, identifying the problem is easy. Trying to diagnose why Cal has had so much trouble so quickly is much harder. Poor initial game plans? Lack of mental preparedness? Trouble on the road (four of the five non-Stanford games occurred away from Haas Pavilion)? I can’t say. Based on various post-game quotes from these games I’d guess that Joanne Boyle would highlight mindset and effort as the causes, although it’s probably more complicated than that.
What we can say for sure is this: Based on their current style, strengths, and weaknesses, this is a team not built to come back from a large deficit. Last week we talked about how poorly Cal’s offense seems to function against teams that slow the ball down and focus on half court defense. Double digit leads allow those types of teams to really focus on protecting their lead – getting back in transition, flooding the key to keep Cal off the offensive glass, and generally making life hard for the Bears on offense. And Cal isn’t the type of team that can hit a flurry of three pointers or get back into the game from the line.
Conversely, Cal’s usually a pretty good frontrunner because they can slow the ball down, limit their opponent’s chances with good rebounding and punishing teams that try to more quickly by burning them in transition. True, Cal lost a lead against Arizona St., but that required a confluence of bad free throw shooting and a circus three point buzzer beater. Beyond that, Cal has held onto leads against solid teams like USC, Arizona St. and Arizona. The problem is that for most of the season Cal hasn’t played well enough early to be in the position to protect a lead.
It’s possible that this phenomenon is just random variation and I’m making much ado about nothing. At the same time, it’s undoubtedly impacted Cal’s ability to win games. In any case, how Cal starts games will be something to watch this weekend against the Oregon teams as we try to look for positive signs going in to the 2011-12 season.
As for specifics on the games this past week, I don’t have much to say. Familial obligations kept me from listening to the USC game, and evidently I dodged a major bullet. The UCLA game was one of the uglier games I’ve seen this year. I actually felt that the Bruins played down to Cal, but they still managed to win by 15 points, a sign of the gap that has opened up between the two programs over the last two years. UCLA will be losing two important starters and a couple key bench players, so hopefully Cal can catch up next year. But for now, Cal has enough problems that it’s too soon to worry much about where rivals stand.
Getting to .500 in the conference is nearly impossible now with Stanford looming, but it this home stand feels strangely important because if the Bears were to lose to Oregon or Oregon St. at home it would indicate the problems facing the program are even greater than an 0-4 run against the state of Washington. For as much as Cal has struggled this year they still have no business losing at home to two teams with a combined three wins in conference that didn’t come against each other.
I’ll be at Haas for both games next week if anybody wants to drop by and say high. I’ll have zero expectations beyond wanting to watch a win, because it’s been a long time since one of those. Go Bears!