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Arizona State 89, Cal 78: It's time to no longer be excited

Cal overcomes a late deficit just in time to lose in overtime, falling to 5-3 in the Pac-12 and continuing a three game losing streak.

Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not superstitious. I really, really, really don't buy into the mindset that Cal fans 'can't have nice things' or that every good thing is doomed to be followed by something even worse. Still, it's more than a little freaky that the bottom has seemingly fallen out of this team not shortly after I tell everyone to get excited. My bad, I guess? Sorry folks!

I don't understand. Some will argue that Cal's schedule was a paper tiger. Maybe. But beating USC anywhere and ASU at home is definitely easier than beating Stanford on the road, and maybe easier than beating Oregon and Oregon State on the road too. Every efficiency profile you could find a few weeks ago suggested that Cal was a borderline top 25 team.

Was there some fatal flaw that we missed? Or am I overreacting to a losing streak? Did I overreact to the winning streak? There's got to be a middle ground somewhere with this team. I typically approach writing about college sports from the perspective that I don't really know anything, because college sports are so weird, but I thought I knew this team. I guess not.

To be clear: This is a game Cal never should have lost. Not because ASU is a bad team, but because ASU didn't play particularly well, and because Cal was practically given this game with some seriously friendly reffing*. Cal got nearly every borderline call and a few that weren't even borderline. I guess the ball didn't lie, because the Bears didn't particularly take advantage at the line, missing eight free throws. Arizona State's two best players, Jahii Carson** and Jordan Bachynski, were in constant foul trouble and it compromised ASU's defense. This is game Cal should have won by double digits.

It's also a game the Bears didn't particularly deserve to win, because Cal fell behind by 15 in the second half despite all of the advantages listed above. Tyrone Wallace and Justin Cobbs woke up just in time to lead the late comeback, only for Jermaine Marshall to hit a three (on a play that Cal evidently knew was coming) to send the game into overtime, where everything promptly fell to pieces.

Why didn't Cal win this game? Well, I'm going to do something very rare for me, or really for Cal fans generally. I'm going to criticize Mike Montgomery on two points.

To start, switching on screens. Sometimes, this is a great strategy. The Washington Huskies are a team of wing players. Sometimes it feels like they have five wings on the court. It made sense to switch on them, and it worked to perfection.

Arizona State is not Washington. They are a team of extremes. They basically have the biggest and smallest players in the conference. Mostly, they have the single quickest player in the entire conference in Jahii Carson. He's a match-up nightmare for most players in the league. And we let ASU switch so that Richard Solomon or David Kravish (OR KAMERON ROOKS) were guarding him constantly. Carson finished with 29 points and 7 assists. I'm not upset that it was Cal's game plan to start. But it didn't seem to be working fairly early in the game, and Cal never went away from it all game long.

The best reason to switch out on screens is to prevent good looks from behind the arc. But Cal's defense wasn't really doing that, either. ASU got off 19 three point shots at a totally normal proportion as compared to their season average, and most of them were good looks. Switching on screens seemed to create obvious problems for our defense without providing any obvious advantages.

But bigger than that is a repetitive issue. Here are a few quotes:

After UCSB:

They played harder than us, for sure.

After Washington State:

We were not ready to play. I don’t think there’s any question about that. I don’t want to take anything away from Washington State. They came out aggressive. They played hard. We weren’t ready to play. You could tell.

After USC

"We got pretty self-satisfied with ourselves," Montgomery said of his team's attitude after a 5-0 conference start. "Kids didn't recognize why we won some games.

Our focus was very, very poor. There's no excuse for that.

After UCLA, on Cal's run after falling behind by 19:

It gives you an indication of what we can do if we just play hard.

After Arizona State:

[E]motionally we have a hard time adjusting when things go wrong

This was a lesson that this team supposedly learned after losing to UCSB. It's a lesson that Cal's upper classmen have learned in multiple losses over multiple seasons. I'm glad Monty is honest. It's one of his best traits. But it's not fun as a fan to read these same comments after every loss. This isn't an issue that's 100% on the coaches or 100% on the players, but geez.

Unfortunately, even if these issues are fixed, Cal is facing a team on Saturday that can win even if Cal plays with the perfect mindset for 40 minutes.

I won't, however, bash Monty for not fouling late in the game - ASU had too much time to give them free throws. The scenario in this game was a little too early to fit into Kenpom's look into the numbers, but the fact of the matter is that, as non-intuitive as the results are, fouling when up three does not maximize your chances to win.


Ignore the free throw rate bars - 14 of ASU's 33 free throws came in overtime after Cal started fouling and don't really have anything to do with why Cal lost.

Some of ASU's success on the offensive glass came when Solomon or Kravish were out on the perimeter defending a guard they got switched onto. But I'm baffled that Cal was completely unable to gain any traction on the offensive glass when Arizona State's post players were mired in constant foul trouble and the Devils went small.

But again: Shooting. The strength of Cal's defense, hypothetically, is the shot blocking/shot altering ability of Solomon and Kravish. ASU made 49% of their 2 point shots, often with our rim protectors out of position. I'm a broken record.

All is forgiven if we beat Arizona.

*Admitting this now gives us all carte blanche to complain the next time Cal gets screwed by the refs, right?

**Although Carson gets no sympathy, since he theatrically jerks his head backwards in mock agony every time he feels a light breeze.