A week ago the sky was falling, after what was on paper one of the worst losses in Cal Men's Basketball history. Then, in the conference opener on Friday night, the Bears appeared to have righted the ship with the best offensive half of the season to put away conference contender Washington. Heading into today, Cal was a 12 point favorite against the team the CGB staff unanimously selected as the worst in the Pac-12. So naturally, the Bears never held a lead, struggled alternately on offense and then on defense, and ultimately fell to the Washington State Cougars 69-66, to split the opening weekend of conference play.
Is the sky falling, or is the real Cal team the team that beat a ranked, 11-1 Washington team? Probably a little bit of both. This is a team without a lot of obvious matchup strengths, and whose only current edge is gritty, tough defense. They are playing without their most efficient scorer. So this is a team with almost no margin for error, regardless of competition. That isn't a lesson that's been learned, apparently, and too many errors resulted in yet another blow to any conference title or postseason aspirations.
Like Friday night, it was a tale of two halves. The first half was a grind-it-out defensive struggle. Despite a size disadvantage inside against the WSU front line of Jordan Railey and Josh Hawkinson, the Bears showed their defensive strength in the first stanza. In particular, Tyrone Wallace, Sam Singer, and a lot of help defense held WSU's best player, DaVonte Lacy to a quiet 4 points on 2-5 shooting. The Cougars averaged just .77 points per possession in the half, well under their normal 1.00. However, Cal still walked into the locker room trailing 24-20. On the other end of the court, the side that has been painful to watch lately, the Bears averaged an appalling .65 points on their own possessions. If you aren't familiar with efficiency statistics, I can put this in simple perspective. That would put them 350th out of 351 Division I basketball teams. And the scariest part of that may be the fact that WSU is easily the worst defensive team in the Pac-12.
The second half was a completely different story. Cal's offense turned around, almost doubling its scoring efficiency and more than doubling its scoring total, putting up 46 points in the second after their 20 point first half. Unlike Friday night, however, this did not result in a win. And this, Golden Bear fans, might be where the real concern lies. The Washington State Cougars, a team that is mediocre in almost every way you can define mediocre, and who is a team with limited offensive weapons, matched Cal point for point and possession for possession. In case you think think Cal's offensive struggles are the sole reason for recent troubles, and is beyond hope, the Bears put up 1.25 points per possession in the second half and only outscored WSU by one point. They gave up the Cougars' third best offensive half of the year, joining the likes of Idaho State and UT San Antonio. If you're a strong defensive club playing on the razor's edge, you simply don't get to do that.
Watching the vaunted Bears defense get shredded was a traumatic event. We have known all year that Cal's front line is undersized, but Railey came into the afternoon averaging just 4.4 ppg and he went off for 17 on 7-14 from the floor. David Kravish should be a better version of sophomore Hawkinson, but Hawkinson went off for 18 points and 12 rebounds, while David...well...more on that later. Time and time again the Bears played soft in the post, miscommunicated on switches, turned their head on cutters, missed box outs, and failed to get to loose balls. Simply put, Washington State played better.
I have no idea whether the Bears offense will get better this year. There are a lot of talent gaps, which Nick highlighted nicely in the CSUB recap. I have probably underestimated the effect of missing Jabari Bird, Cal's most efficient scorer, but he still does not have a return date and we don't know what he or the chemistry will look like after more than a month off.
But ya know what? Even with the continuing offensive struggles, Cal would have beaten CSUB and WSU if they had played the type of intense, focused basketball they pride themselves on. This is a team with no margin for error, and the errors keep piling up.
David Kravish is presumably Cal's second best player and senior leader. He's Cal's only legitimate low post threat. He made a bushel of mental mistakes, and finished 2-9 from the field for 6 points. I feel bad for continually including this bullet point in my recaps, because David is a great guy and terrific Golden Bear. However, this is just truth: Cal needs him.
If there's a bright spot offensively, it's that Jordan Mathews continues to shoot well, and seems to be playing with renewed confidence and swagger. 24 points to lead all scorers on 8-16 shooting including 4-8 3p.
WSU just didn't guard Sam Singer and Roger Moute a Bidias. They both went 2-7 this afternoon. If you're wondering why our spacing and ball movement looks so awful, I'd suggest looking there. Defenders aren't just playing off, they're playing 5 feet off. That's a tremendous handicap to floor spacing in the half court.
- The game featured two interesting coaching decisions. Cuonzo Martin purposely got a technical foul midway through the second half, to try to turn his team around. It's hard to judge the psychological effect of that decision, and I'm not even going to try, but it was noteworthy because of how close the ultimate outcome was. Ernie Kent, desperate for a road win, micro-managed throughout the late second half, using all his timeouts. When the Cougars ran out of timeouts, they called one anyway, resulting in a technical foul and giving Jordan Mathews a decent desperation heave at the buzzer with an opportunity to tie the game.