What went right:
The team raced out to a 5-0 start including a neutral court win over a tough Arkansas team. Richard Solomon and David Kravish both looked to have elevated their games. In particular, Solo showed a new maturity with regards to embracing his role as a post player determined to dominate the glass.
Both of our bigs showed an improved ability to score consistently inside; a skill noticeably lacking during the early stretches of last season.
The young wing players all showed promise. Ty Wallace appeared stronger with an improved jump shot. Mathews and Singer had their moments. And Jabari Bird announced himself by putting the team on his back and carrying them to a victory over surprisingly resolute Oakland Grizzlies squad.
We looked like we had the pieces for a tough, talented squad with more depth than Monty has ever had during his tenure at Cal.
What was less than ideal:
An eye injury to Solomon cost us an upset bid against Syracuse. We promptly followed up that loss by getting blown out by a red-hot Dayton team.
Solomon's return wasn't enough to stop us from dropping a bad one to UC Santa Barbara. For the first time all year, you could point fingers to a disturbing lack of effort, hustle, and toughness.
Then the ghost of Cal football reared its ugly head and spread the infamous Injury Plague of '13. Veteran spark plug Ricky Kreklow was scratched right before the Creighton game with a broken hand. Jabari Bird rolled his ankle badly on a teammates' foot and was in a boot before half. The Bears lost decisively to Creighton and with it, their last shot at a "good" pre-conference win.
With an overall record of 9-4, no quality wins, and missing a starter and our sixth man, things looked bleak heading into conference play...
Pac-12 Conference 1st Half:
What went right:
The match-ups looked unfavorable and the two teams seemed headed in opposite directions. Cal had missed their chance to upset two ranked opponents. Stanford, on the other hand, had brought down UConn and almost tripped up Michigan. It looked like another road loss at Maples was a foregone conclusion.
But our Bears did not quit, nor die. It took an inspired team effort, but our young players outplayed their bigger and more experienced counterparts. Solo and Kravish were solid in the middle and Cobbs made clutch plays down the stretch. In the end, Maples was Bear Territory!
This formula repeated itself a week later up in Oregon. Bolstered by a career high 32 point scoring explosion from Jordan Mathews, Cal upset the #17 Ducks for a mind-boggling twelfth consecutive victory over Oregon.
A blow-out home win over the UW Huskies seemed to highlight all the promise and potential of this improving Cal team. We saw fierce defense, domination in the paint, and something rarely seen in the past few seasons; strong contributions off the bench. The emergence of Jeff Powers and Christian Behrens suggested that we could conceivably go 9-10 deep once our injured Bears returned.
At 5-0 in the conference, we were playing beautiful basketball. Our team looked strong on defense, improving on offense, and the young players took turns stepping up. Just around the corner, two of our better players looked to return from injury. And Cal fans dared speculate of rankings and post-season seeds...
Most of what followed was not exactly smooth sailing, (spoiler alert) but taking down #1 Arizona at Haas is a season-highlight in and of itself.
What was less than ideal:
Cal pulled off wins against OSU and WSU, but the effort was lacking. In both cases, the team came out flat and eventually flipped the switch in order to salvage victories. Coach Mike Montgomery knew his guys were not ready to play and said as much. But the words fell upon deaf ears...
A confident Bears team ventured down to Southern California and promptly got their teeth kicked in. An 0-5 Trojan team finally caught fire and pushed the Bears all over the court. Losing was bad enough. But losing while being physically dominated and outworked was embarrassing.
Cal fans expected the guys to bounce back with a more determined effort against the UCLA Bruins. Instead, we allowed ourselves to get out-hustled and out-played by the Wear twins and Bryce Alford. Yet again, a sluggish 1st half put us in too deep a hole to climb back.
"We need to come out playing harder."
"We need to play hard all the time, not just some of the time."
Coach Mike Montgomery and the players seemed to have the problem identified. The press conference sound bits sure made it seem like everyone was on the same page.
But it was more of the same against ASU. Despite getting both Sun Devil bigs into early foul trouble, the Bears were unable to take advantage inside. Poor defensive rotations, awkward offensive sets, ill-advised shot selection, and a general lack of intensity led to yet another double-digit halftime deficit. In what might be a microcosm of the season to come, Cal mounted a furious comeback to take a three point lead with seconds to play...only to blow a defensive switch which allowed for a game-tying three to send the game into overtime. Mentally defeated, our Bears were soundly outplayed in the extra period.
Just when it looked like we had turned the corner and re-discovered ourselves against Arizona, all momentum was squandered during a lackluster home loss to the Furds. It's not so much the losses themselves that were disheartening; it was the way we lost.
Where we stand now:
Richard Solomon has generally been a consistent force on the boards, has gotten better at avoiding cheap fouls, and shows improved touch around the hoop. His free throw shooting and ability to set solid screens remain works in progress. In some ways, he's a microcosm of this team's roller coaster of a season. On one night, he's outplaying Arizona's future NBA players and looks like the best player on the court. But against USC and Furd? Not so much.
David Kravish was Mr. Reliable for the first eighteen games. His production and all-around game declined sharply starting with the SoCal road trip. Whether this is an undisclosed illness or injury or just a slump, we need him to both return to form and to step up. He has the all-around game to be more dominant and can't let other teams make him disappear.
Christian Behrens was improving game by game before suffering a setback with swelling in his twice-surgically repaired knee. He still shows promise as a reserve big.
Jeff Powers has shot the ball well enough to draw significant defensive attention when he comes into the game. He needs good ball movement and screens from his teammates to get free, however. The question will always be whether his offense can offset matchup issues on defense.
Kameron Rooks needs the right match-ups to effective, but has taken several huge steps since the start of the year. He's shown a nice touch near the hoop and at the free throw line.
Justin Cobbs has taken care of the ball and does a good job of setting up teammates. He's also doing a much better job of attacking the basket this season. His shot selection is sometimes questionable and his three ball is streaky. But it's hard to argue with the results when the clock is ticking down. In fairness, he's had to call his own number more often when the rest of the guys are struggling.
The poster child for "streaky", Ty Wallace has at times shown a nice baby hook in the lane as well as an improved jump shot. At other times, the percentages have not been pretty. Recently, it looks like his mechanics are regressing a bit as he's pushing the ball instead of getting a nice release with arc and spin.
As you might expect from a young player, Jordan Mathews has had hiccups on both ends. But you have to appreciate his confidence and willingness to compete. With time, you'd expect experience and Monty's cattle prod will help with the shot selection. He's one of several candidates to emerge as our consistent deep threat.
Jabari Bird was really slowed by the ankle injury. Besides missing practice and game time, you can see that his conditioning suffered. Even at less than full strength, he is unique on the roster with his ability to create his own shot and put up points in bunches. Unfortunately, his three point shot appears to still be on injured reserve.
Like all of the frosh, Sam Singer has had flashes. At times, he's gotten more minutes to let Cobbs slide over into more of a scoring role.
In absence, Ricky Kreklow has shown Cal fans exactly why he's more important than the stat sheet. He's one of the few guys who really knows where to be on the court and where the ball should go next.
It may fly in the face of "In Monty we trust," but losing four of five raises previously unanswered questions.
Some have questioned the wisdom of switching all screens despite the subsequent and obvious mismatches. It worked fine to get us to 5-0, less so when we dropped the next several games. The strategic pluses and minuses can be debated, but the real difference is how the guys have executed their assignments and rotations. It should be noted that our strategy was to go over screens the last two games.
Similarly, there are questions about our lack of persistence with feeding the ball inside, or our seeming unwillingness to run plays to get our best natural scorer (Bird) good shots.
Perhaps most concerning is the repeated lack of energy to start games. Monty has talked about it ad nauseam as have the players themselves.
Ultimately, the issue isn't so much about identifying problems and solutions; Monty knows what's going on and knows what needs to be done. The big question mark is whether he can teach the guys to play better basketball while encouraging the development of their mental toughness.
Defensively, we're a tough team when we rotate properly and let Kravish/Solo be a formidable shot-deterring duo inside. Contrary to popular belief, we have mixed in some 1-2-2 zone looks fairly effectively throughout the year. The key in both cases is effort.
On offense, we've needed to work on our screens, cuts, and ball movement all year. Sloppy execution is costing us good shot opportunities. Because our outside shooting has been inconsistent at best, teams have been doubling and packing the paint to take away our post touches.
"We either come together or fall separately."
Looking at the bigger picture, the 2nd half is more about personal growth. Beyond the W's & L's, the focus has to be on seeing our guys learn to play better team basketball.
At 15-8 with eight regular season games and at least one conference tournament game, our Bears don't have much margin for error. We'll effectively have to duplicate last year's late season run to have any chance at the NCAA tournament.
Can Monty find a way to rally the guys and pull it off again? The odds are long, but I wouldn't bet against him. And, it should be a fun ride to watch.