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USC 71, Cal 57: Time for a radical revision of expectations

Cal is blown out by one of the worst teams in the conference missing their best player, which means it's time to do something we probably should have done game or three ago.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

This is my sixth season covering basketball for CGB. In that time I would estimate that I have watched roughly 250-300 Cal men's and women's basketball games. And of course, I watched many games prior to writing for CGB.

Last night's game was probably the least amount of fun I have ever had watching a Cal game.

There just wasn't anything fun about the game. Cal held a 2 point lead for 24 seconds, then fell behind by double digits after just 7 minutes of game time. Cal never got closer than 6 points, and actually trailed by 19 with 4:45 left before a late flurry against indifferent USC defense made the score look slightly closer than it was.

But I've watched Cal lose plenty of games. Why was this one so unfun? Like I said above, because Cal was never really competitive. Because it was Cal's 3rd loss to a bad team in a matter of weeks. Because it was to USC, and I had to listen to their damn band during the broadcast. Because I had to listen to Jon Crispin blather for two hours about 'toughness' as if being tough is somehow the only factor that matters when analyzing a basketball game. Because Cal turned the ball over five times in their first eight possessions. Because Cal played in a bizarre zone defense for the entire game for no discernable reason.

Because Cal allowed 1.04 points/possession to the statistically 2nd worst offense in the Pac-12.

Because Cal is the only team preventing USC from having the statistically worst offense in the Pac-12.

On offense, Cal got solid games out of Jordan Mathews (17 points on 13 shots) and Ty Wallace (21 points on 21 shots) and essentially nothing from everybody else (19 points on 31 shots).

On defense, Cal came out sluggish (breaking news!) and Martin responded by throwing out a zone defense for perhaps the first time during his Cal tenure. It worked for a few possessions when USC missed a few threes, but the Trojans quickly because breaking down the zone easily against a group of players who are probably not very experienced at playing a zone either in practice or in games. When it became clear that the zone wasn't working, Martin stuck with it, for reasons I can only guess at.

Other thoughts:

  • Cal made a concerted effort to crash the offensive glass against USC. The result was 15 offensive rebounds and 11 second half points. It also resulted in USC run-outs when the Trojans managed to grab the defensive board, so I'm honestly not sure if the strategy helped, hurt, or had a neutral result.
  • Conversely, USC rebounded 33% of their own missed shots, so Cal didn't really gain much on the rebounding front.
  • If there was a bright spot in the game, it was Kingsley Okoroh, who had a few strong post moves and looked decent on offense and on the glass. He also looked completely uncomfortable in Cal's zone defense, which pulled him out of position when he would otherwise be a plus defensive player.
  • Martin gave a start to Okoroh and Roger Moute a Bidias. Unfortunately, Roger turned the ball over badly twice and was quickly back to the bench.
  • Christian Behrens barely played and barely registered when on the court. For as well as he looked earlier in the season, he's struggled badly in Pac-12 play now that he has to face larger players game-in, game-out.
I hesitate to say that it's time to start thinking about next year . . . but unless Jabari Bird comes back soon, this is a team that would have to meaningfully overachieve to even reach a .500 record in conference play. The offense has gone from bad to worse and the defense no longer appears to be anything special.

Is Cuonzo Martin to blame? I suppose that's a question that we can evaluate over the course of the year, but I would argue that he has been pretty unlucky. For one thing, he came to Cal right in the middle of a critical recruiting class thanks to the departure of Cobb and Solomon, and didn't really have the time to recover. The Bird injury has obviously thrown the entire offensive strategy for a loop. And he's really feeling the pain of Mike Montgomery's . . . shall we say . . . indifferent attitude towards recruiting over the last few years.

I hope I'm wrong, but every indication is that it's going to be a very rough rest of the season. At least we know that this team has the talent to pick up a win here and there. Extending UCLA's misery would be a delightful oasis.