Judging the relative quality (or lack thereof) of wins and losses across years and eras is a challenging, at times pointless exercise. But there are objective ways to look at it.
Here's one simple way: Cal State Bakersfield is ranked 273rd in the country in Kenpom's rating system. That is the lowest ranked team Cal has lost to in the history of Kenpom rankings. That goes all the way back to 2002, and the only game that is even close is a 2 point ROAD loss to #257 Eastern Michigan to open the 2006 season.
Another pseudo-objective way to rank teams is the RPI. Entering tonight's game, CSUB was ranked 340th. This is undoubtedly the worst RPI loss in Cal's history as a program because Division 1 basketball didn't even have 340 teams total until 2008.
So yeah, this was bad. There are probably some losses in the 60s and 70s, during the dark ages of Cal basketball, that can compete with this loss. But as far as I'm aware, using the quick-and-dirty tools I have easily available to me? This appears to be the worst Cal loss in modern program history.
Why did Cal lose? Let's start with Cal's offense, which has officially moved from sleepy to full-scale disturbing. The stats are exactly as grisly as you would expect. Cal turned the ball over 18 times and averaged .81 points/possession at home against a team that had allowed every other opponent but one to score more efficiently.
At the moment I would say that Cal tries to do three things on offense with any frequency: Give the ball to Tyrone Wallace and let him work magic, post up David Kravish, or try to get Jordan Mathews an open 3 point look. Granted, that's just what Cal is trying to do. David Kravish is passing up half of his decent post-up looks, and every team Cal has faced knows not to let Mathews get an open look, and as a result Cal is only able to consistently do one good thing on offense that they want to do.
And when any team with a decent defense can reduce Cal to just hoping for Ty to bail them out, things devolve quickly. Everybody starts to look tentative with the ball, passes become defensive rather than offensive, and turnovers pile up. A healthy Jabari Bird would obviously help, but he's not a panacea either. So many players need to add to their game. Jordan Mathews needs to add a dribble drive game to go with his shooting ability. Sam Singer needs to add a decent jumper to add to his dribble drive game. EVERYBODY needs to pass the ball better. These are easy things to say but hard skills to actually develop, particularly in the middle of the season.
There are just facts about this roster that can't really be changed. There isn't one really incisive passing point guard. They will never be a great free throw shooting team. Frankly, there aren't enough shooters period to really space out a defense. I don't want to say that you should just accept a limited offense, but it's also naive to expect things to change significantly with this much evidence.
Cal's defense was the comparatively lesser sin, but still lacking. The tone of the game was set early when CSUB ran identical plays back-to-back to earn wide-open 3 pointers. The Roadrunners badly bricked both looks, because they aren't a very good offensive team. But Cal's indifferent attitude to start the game eventually did result in made baskets and points.
The Bears were favored by 15.5, yet found themselves down by 17 points late in the first half. Of all the hard-to-believe aspects of the game, this was the most dumbfounding. Over the final 22 minutes of the game, Cal mostly played like they were expected to play - they outscored CSUB by 14. But when you're a severely limited offensive team, you simply can't play low effort basketball for almost half of the game without getting punished.
Despite everything wrong that happened, Cal cut the deficit all the way down to 2 points, then forced an ugly missed shot from CSUB with about 30 seconds left. Unfortunately, three Cal players stood around while CSUB snuck in for the offensive rebound. Later, after a CSUB missed free throw, Cal still had the opportunity to shoot a game tying three, but instead Jordan Mathews dribbled the ball off his leg out of bounds to functionally end the game. It was entirely fitting that the game was decided at the end by a hustle play that Cal failed to make and an entirely unforced turnover.
Thus ends many of the positive feelings built up over a 10-1 start. Cal had earned themselves a non-conference profile that was borderline NCAA-tournament-worthy by going 1-2 in games against legitimate power conference competition and not losing a single game against small conference teams. Adding a loss to CSUB gives Cal's resume a very black mark that will be difficult to compensate for in what appears to be another down year for the Pac-12.
But the NCAA tournament isn't the biggest concern at the moment. For now the focus will be on buy-in and effort. Last year, Mike Montgomery was unable to coax consistent energy and effort from his team. Cuonzo Martin made it clear that he expected just that from largely the same group of players this year. Thus far, he has been unable to get it either. And with a roster that is clearly extremely limited on offense, an off-night of effort will almost certainly mean defeat against a Pac-12 team.
Maybe that will change. Now that Cal has reached conference play, there should not be a team on the schedule that the Bears will feel they can overlook. Maybe inconsistent effort will persist, and Cal will be mired in mediocrity in a mediocre conference. We'll start finding out next Friday when Washington comes to Haas.