This team needed that win, and boy am I glad that they got it.
When a season has clearly gone in the wrong direction, individual games perhaps lose their importance. But throughout Cal's six game losing streak, only two games could be considered remotely competitive. And when Cal lost by 35 . . . at home . . . to Arizona State, fans were left to ponder the worst. Had the team mentally given up on the season? Were the coaches still getting through to their players, either in games or in practice? If so, how bad could things hypothetically get?
Because when teams lose five straight conference games by double digits, things had the potential to get really ugly. Like, 2-17, 3-16 ugly. I wouldn't say that a disaster season along those lines is/was likely to happen, but it's on the table - particularly if the players tuned out the coaching staff.
And what I saw against Washington State, on the road, was a group of players still buying in to their team and their coaches. I saw it both in tangible ways (better execution on both sides of the ball) and intangible ways. When David Kravish fouled out (after a series of really awful calls) it was a joy to see him jumping off of the bench, pumping his fists every time Cal hit a shot. When Jabari Bird came up with an offensive rebound, and-1 put back, he let out a huge yell, as if releasing weeks of built up frustration.
This was a team that was engaged mentally. Granted, I think the Bears have been engaged in previous games, at least in part, and still lost. So for now I'm glad that this engagement did in fact get rewarded with a win. In my Arizona recap, I openly discussed whether or not this team was worth closely following. Against Washington State, the provided ample evidence that they are, as painful as many games have been this year.
Cal's offense had their best showing since the Washington game, which not so coincidentally was Cal's last win. Let's quickly go over the reasons Cal scored 1.17 points/possession when they hadn't even been able to crack .97 in the entire 6 game losing streak:
- Washington State has the worst defense in the Pac-12. Their defense is roughly as bad as Cal's offense is bad, so yeah. Still, that wasn't everything, because Cal still struggled to score on the Cougs in Berkeley a few weeks ago.
- Ty played off-ball, and had more room. Freed up of some of his ball-handling responsibilities, Ty looked like vintage non-conference Ty. It helps that, to my untrained eyes, WSU wasn't as sharp about sending help defenders on his drives, and he was generally shooting over one dude rather than two or three, at least in the first half.
- Literally everybody shot better. Ty finished a bunch of tough runners. Five different players hit a 3. Even Christian Behrens and Sam Singer had a few nice finishes. It's entirely possible for a team (or more specifically, an offense) to be both bad and unlucky. Cal finally got an above average shooting night, and luckily it came against a team that isn't so talented to overcome that variance. The entire night was symbolized by the Jordan Mathews dagger three that hit off the backboard and rim before going down. When was the last time Cal got a shooter's roll?
Individual player observations:
- Brandon Chauca played a surprise 23 minutes, mostly because Jordan Mathews picked up 2 fouls on Cal's first offensive possession. But Chauca earned himself more court time by bringing energy, making shots, and showing more flair passing the ball than I would have expected. Wazzu is probably the perfect matchup for him because they don't have the defensive ability to punish his sometimes iffy ball-handling, and they didn't completely exploit is defensive issues. I wouldn't expect many more 10 point, 3 assist nights, but I'm not against finding out.
- The aforementioned Mathews suffered from a classically horrible Pac-12 reffing decision, turning a relatively minor brush up into a 2 foul debacle. He then completely failed to get engaged offensively before suddenly scoring 9 points down the stretch to hold off Wazzu after Cal blew a double digit lead.
- Kingsley Okoroh is so obviously Cal's best defensive option inside, and so obviously not ready to contribute much on offense. Josh Hawkinson and Jordan Railey combined to shoot 8-22 from the field, and I'd give Kingsley plenty of credit that they mostly only had success on mid range jumpers, rather than the back-to-the-basket stuff that killed Cal in Berkeley.
- Jabari Bird could probably still be a little more selfish on offense, but he's looking just a bit better each game. 4 offensive rebounds was a nice plus. And just as importantly, he's engaged defensively and improving on that side of the ball too.