As a good-but-not-elite team, there are certain teams that the Bears just don't match up well against. Missouri and UNLV obviously spring to mind. A few years ago Oregon State gave Cal fits two years in a row. Arizona's athletes are always a tough draw. Colorado has now held the Bears to two of their four worst offensive outputs in Pac-12 play. And I'm not entirely sure why.
Don't get me wrong. Colorado is a plenty good defensive team, perhaps even the best in the conference. But I watched both games between the Bears and the Buffs, and it's just not clear to me why Cal has looked so bad against Colorado. It's obvious what Missouri and UNLV had that made things tough on Cal. Even OSU made sense because of what the 1-3-1 did to a player like Jerome Randle. So what is it that the Buffs do that basically nobody else in the conference can do? Andre Roberson is the only player on the roster that has the type of overwhelming athleticism that can give Cal trouble. Is there some skill or talent that Colorado has that gives Cal trouble, or is it just random chance that Cal had two awful offensive games against them?
In the game thread I said that my only theory was that, unlike basically every other team in the conference, Colorado doesn't make mistakes on defense. I think it might be just as simple as that. Think about it for a little - what other teams in the conference play even decent defense? There's Arizona, Washington if they play man-to-man . . . maybe Stanford. And after that? UCLA is statistically the best defense in the conference. That's the UCLA team that let Robert Thurman score a collective 18 points on 8-11 shooting, that Cal shot somewhere around a collective 60% in two games. I don't like constantly talking about how bad the Pac-12. God knows it's gotten annoying watching every member of the national media bring it up in every article. But I think the answer to the riddle is that Cal is a team that feasts off of defensive mistakes and Colorado is one of three or four teams in the conference that plays consistently sound defense.
That isn't to say that Cal didn't also play below their own ability level. But Colorado doesn't break down defensively at the first sign of dribble penetration. They know how to deal with basic ball screens. They don't randomly lose defenders, they don't gamble for steals, they don't give you anything easy inside and they always get the defensive rebound. Or, at least, they do against us. I'd certainly like to know if that type of defense has been typical of the Buffs throughout the Pac-12 schedule.
Based on the type of shots Cal created, our best chance was to get crazy hot from three. And briefly, it looked like that might actually work. Crabbe, Cobbs and even Harper Kamp all hit three pointers in a flurry about midway through the 2nd half. With Cal down five Crabbe launched one that looked good the whole way before rattling around the rim and popping back up. Colorado went on an 11-2 run that clinched the game.
Hooray, we took more free throws! Boo everything else! I'm not going to look it up, but I suspect that's the biggest negative gap in rebounding percentage Cal has suffered this season. Insert Richard Solomon lament here. We're lucky that this is a relatively down year for Pac-12 post players. As it turns out Colorado is one of the few teams that has a player to really exploit Solomon's absence. Hope we don't draw Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament.
Beyond my 'Colorado doesn't make mistakes on defense' theory, my other explanation is a simple one: Roberson. If you're looking for the #1 reason Colorado won, I'd start with Andre Roberson generally, and his 15 rebounds specifically. Cal is a guard oriented team in the sense that penetration and passing from our guards makes the offense go. But Cal depends on controlling the paint - only six teams in the country attempt less three pointers as a percentage of all shots taken. Our guards get to the paint and score, or they get into the paint and pass, or they pass the ball directly into the paint. Andre Roberson was a huge part in stopping any of that from happening by playing great on the ball defense, great help defense, and by rebounding everything else.
So, this loss hurt. But it is worth pointing out that of Cal's four conference losses, this is easily the most understandable. Losing to Arizona isn't a huge surprise, but it was a home game, and losing to OSU and WSU is significantly more frustrating than losing to a solid Buff team at altitude. The pain comes from the timing, and from the fact that Washington is threatening to defy every expectation and assumption out of the water by finishing the season with a Pac-12 record of 15-3.
I can promise you this: the race for the conference title isn't over yet. Just think how much better we'll all feel after beating up on a demoralized Stanford squad next Sunday. And if the Bruins do something useful for the first time in ever, maybe the Bears can do it with something bigger on the line.