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Cal Men's Basketball Leaves Fresno with Road Win

Golden Bears overcome sluggish play to escape Central Valley with 64-57 victory.

Tyrone Wallace's double-double led Cal to its fifth win. (Credit @CalMensBB)
Tyrone Wallace's double-double led Cal to its fifth win. (Credit @CalMensBB)

The Cal men's basketball team, perhaps curious to see how Aaron Rodgers would perform in a marquee matchup against Tom Brady, seemed like their minds were often elsewhere during their appearance at Fresno State's Save Mart Center today. After playing an unfocused, sluggish game for the majority of 40 minutes, the Bears ultimately held on for a 64-57 victory over the 1-6 Bulldogs, improving their record to 5-1. The Bears were led by Tyrone Wallace, who continued his non-conference march toward the holidays by providing a stat sheet stuffed with goodies. On Sunday afternoon he gifted his family and friends who made the trip from Bakersfield with 21 points on 8-14 shooting, and threw in 10 boards, a couple of assists, and a couple of steals. However, he also had a few presents for Fresno State, shooting 2-6 from the FT line and missing key front ends down the stretch to keep the game within reach. For Fresno State, Marvelle Harris kept the Bulldogs within striking distance with 19 first half points aided by some quick whistles on the perimeter. He ultimately finished with 27 points and 7 rebounds.

The Bears began the game without the crisp ball movement that has defined their early season success, and also -- more importantly to Coach Cuonzo Martin -- without any energy on defense. They sleepwalked into forced, contested shots on offense, resulting in a 2-9 effort on early FG attempts and a number of careless turnovers. On defense, they showed very little desire to stop Fresno State's predictable attempts to run weakside screens and ball reversals.

Cuonzo, justifiably displeased, pulled starters early, with Jabari Bird, Christian Behrens, and David Kravish all sitting before the first TV timeout. It was an ugly 8-8 game when the starters returned at the 13:54 mark, and it appeared Coach Martin's message had been delivered, as the Bear offense started getting drives to the basket on offense,  while ball-denial on defense forced Fresno State into a lot of one-on-one opportunities. In the subsequent seven minutes the Bears went on a 20-6 run, sparked by Wallace's relentless drives to the hole. However, despite holding the Bulldogs to under 35% shooting, while shooting over 50% themselves, the lead at halftime was only eight, in part because of a big free throw disparity, and in part because the Bears took their foot off the gas. Both would be a theme in the second half.

To open the second stanza, Tyrone Wallace quickly picked up his third foul and sat for seven minutes. The offense never did find their rhythm the rest of the game. For a short stretch, David Kravish dominated in the low post, but Fresno State began pressuring the wing passers and playing ¾ in the post, making entry passes much more difficult. Cal could not find a solution, so Kravish, the Bears best low post presence and best mismatch in this game, was quiet for the last 15 minutes.

Despite those struggles, and a lackluster defensive effort, Cal kept the margin at double figures for much of the half. This was due in part to the fact that Cal's defense, even when not revved up to its full capacity, is still pretty good, and in part due to head basketball writer Scott Chong's observation that, although Fresno State likes to shoot, they don't really like to make shots. Of course, any good Bear fan knows that when you tempt fate, you get bitten, and as the game slipped under the 10 minute mark, the Bulldogs raised their shooting percentage to mediocre while the Cal offense went completely south. The Bulldogs turned up their defensive intensity, and the Bears struggled to find driving lanes and passing angles. Wallace missed four consecutive free throws. Even coming out of the huddle after timeouts, the Bears could not get a decent look at the basket. Luckily, the Fresno State shotmaking "magic" ran out (even 40% is magical for these guys), and the cushion Cal had built through the sheer talent mismatch proved decisive. Although the Bulldogs cut the lead to two possessions several times, they got no closer than five, and the Bears ultimately held on for an always-welcome road victory.

Miscellaneous Observations

  • David Kravish was very good in the post when (a) he got good position and (b) the entry pass was delivered properly. However, Fresno State too easily disrupted that pattern. If a mediocre team is able to do this, one wonders how Cal will fare against a good defensive team. I continue to believe that finding ways to take advantage of Kravish as a primary offensive option is a key to this season's success.

  • Jabari Bird had a poor shooting night, going 1-9, including 0-5 from deep. The Bears are going to have tough offensive nights when he and Mathews (4-10 shooting after starting 1-6) aren't shooting the ball well. It was a mixed bag for both players in terms of decision-making. They punctuated some nice, calm execution in spots with some forces and defensive lapses.

  • Sam Singer had a tough day. Although the stat sheet says 2-4 shooting with 6 assists against 3 TOs, he struggled all game to make the timely pass, and had a difficult defensive afternoon by his standards.

  • Part of Singer's trouble stemmed from how tightly the game was being called on the perimeter. The Bears pride themselves on staying in front of wing players, and for the most part they were doing so, but even the slightest hint of contact was being called against the Bears, thereby rewarding pointlessly aggressive offense, rather than defensive effort. Before a series of late intentional fouls by the Bulldogs, the foul differential was 20-11 in Fresno State's favor -- not at all indicative of each team's defensive effort.

  • The Bears were excellent on the defensive glass, allowing only 4 offensive boards on 32 missed shots.