We love sports for the limitless possibilities. Sometimes you're not supposed to win, but you show up at the arena and, still, you believe. If we play really well, if the shots start falling, if we get a couple breaks. We can create magic. We can produce one of those nights that we remember forever -- when we rush the court and bask in the euphoria and the greatness of our school. We anticipate these games because of the possibility of that moment, and the hope that we'll see something we'll remember forever.
This was not one of those nights.
By any measure, Cal was in tough against a precise, veteran Wisconsin squad with oodles of big game experience. A squad that, entering the game, had faced a tough non-conference schedule and produced a 10-1 record. A squad that had produced efficiency numbers on both ends as good as almost anyone else in the country. Yet there was still the hope that, in a plodding, ugly game...a lot of things would break in the Bears favor, and the scrappy Cal squad that had found a way to win so many ugly games would once again produce a victory on its home court.
A few things did go well for the Bears. To open the game, the Badgers -- facing a well-prepared and energetic Cal defense -- had trouble getting to their spots and forced up mostly bad shots. They opened the game 2-9 from the floor. For the entire contest, Wisconsin's normally strong shooters went just 3-11 from 3p range, and two of those makes came in the late stages of the game. And the Bears held National Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky to 14 pts on 5-13 shooting, a horribly inefficient night by his standards.
None of this good fortune was nearly enough. Every other thing that Wisconsin does well, they did well on Monday night, and ultimately their steady, relentless execution and toughness wore the Bears down. As Coach Martin said after the game, "They did what they do." Cal kept it close for much of the 1st half, but a late Wisconsin run extended the lead to a dozen at halftime, and the Bears were never really in it in the 2nd half. Ultimately, the Badgers cruised to a 68-56 victory, leaving the Bears at 10-2, and presumably 11-2 going into Pac-12 play.
In many ways, the game played out exactly as it looked on paper: Cal was supposed to be able to compete defensively, but there were questions about whether they had the juice to stay in the game offensively. That's pretty much what happened. The Bears defense is good enough to stifle most teams on most nights, and was good enough to give the Badgers a fair amount of trouble. For long stretches of the game, Cal kept Wisconsin out of its normal ball rotation, and away from comfortable spots on the floor. Yes, the Badgers made some hay with backdoor cuts, and ultimately found some easy spots inside, but let's keep in mind that they run the best executed offense in the country and they have a capable scorer at every position. Playing them perfectly might be too high a bar for Cal. Holding them 9 percentage points below their season eFG% is a good defensive performance. Until a meaningless late-game flurry, Cal held a 1.159 PPP team to under 1. They made Wisconsin take a lot of mid-range jumpers. This game was a win on the defensive end. And it's a testament to how far Cuonzo has taken this team.
But on paper Cal was supposed to struggle on offense and struggle they did. You aren't going to get very many system looks against these guys, and Cal didn't. You can, however, beat them with matchups and athleticism, and the Bears have one guy who can do that. Unsurprisingly, Tyrone Wallace was again the offensive star, shooting 8-16 for a team high 17 points. Mostly he simply physically overmatched whoever was guarding him. The rest of the team shot a collective 33% from the floor. This is because the Badgers are very, very good at position defense. In particular, they are good at getting to your spot before you do, and just standing there, being big. That's why, with 12 minutes remaining in the game, they had two team fouls for the whole game and why, at that same 12 minute mark, every starter not named Wallace was under 30% shooting. Yes, the Bears missed a few looks they should convert, and yes, the officiating changed in the last quarter of the game, inflating the foul numbers and getting Jordan Mathews some cheap points. But it's hard to overstate the effect of always having a tall dude nearby playing solid straight-up D. Wisconsin does this game in and game out, and they make people miss shots, and this is why they're a Final Four contender.
So this game did not so much expose the Bears, as magnify what we already knew. They can and will play defense. They will scrap and claw and get in the dirt and play ugly. They have one guy who will get to the hole all day, and who can do almost everything on the basketball court. But without Jabari Bird (and perhaps with him) they are limited in the half court. They don't have the athleticism to overmatch people and they aren't nearly precise enough yet to out-execute people. They are either going to have to win with this combination of factors, or find a way to get better offensively.
David Kravish: 4-13, 8 pts, 3 boards. I don't even know anymore.
Jordan Mathews' 15 2nd half points were padded by a 7-7 FT performance based on some odd, late calls. Cal did begin to show an ability to get him 3p looks from set plays, which is hopefully a sign of things to come.
- Cuonzo talked about struggles to play post defense, but frankly, I've watched the game twice and I'm not sure what he's referring to. Wisconsin posted our guards/wings up a number of times, but if the standard for our wings is that they be able to guard Sam Dekker or Nigel Hayes, then we are in serious trouble anyway. He might be referring to some soft moments David had in the post, but I didn't find anything too egregious given the level of competition.